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The Abyss Poster

The Abyss (1989)
Directed by James Cameron
Written by James Cameron
Starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff, John Bedford Lloyd, J. C. Quinn, and Kimberly Scott
140 minutes, rated PG-13


The Abyss - Looking back at James Cameron's underwater adventure ...

I cannot, for the life of me, remember what my first wife’s favorite movie might have been.

That is, admittedly, a rather strange way to start this entry, but I have a history with her and this particular film. It might be the only movie I can think of that has a positive history with her. Which is odd now, in retrospect, because movies and the mutual love of them has been such a large part of almost every important relationship that I have ever had. Every girl that I have ever dated, every close friendship that I have ever had, has at least one movie that I associate with them in my mind.

But not her.

Don’t get me wrong. I have plenty of movie-related memories with her, but just about all of them are somehow negative. Arguments, mostly. We had distinctly different tastes in film, and there were many, many confrontations over our five years together about films that I really loved and she vehemently hated. Fargo, Pulp Fiction, Boogie Nights, and Natural Born Killers are just four examples of films that started such arguments. We had squabbles over my having gone to see films without her. We had tiffs over “not having enough money” to see movies this week. I am not now sure why I tolerated some of these things for so long.

I can remember films that I know she liked– The Wizard of Oz, When Harry Met Sally, CluelessThe Shawshank Redemption– but I don’t recall her ever watching those films. I don’t remember specific actors that she enjoyed, actresses that she admired, as much as I remember the ones that made her blood boil. It seems clear now that my ex-wife’s only real interest in film was that it was something that I enjoyed and thereby something that we could do together. As I’ve already mentioned, this approach to our relationship came with its own set of problems.

The Abyss is a film that makes me remember her fondly. The odd thing about that is that I don’t recall if she liked the movie or not. I don’t even remember if she was there when we watched it. What I remember is that her father liked the movie, and the fact that I liked this movie made him like me a little more.

A bit on her father, because it is slightly important to the story I’m about to relate. My former father-in-law was a man that I greatly admired, but I didn’t like very much. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Army, well-decorated for his time overseas in Desert Storm. He was also a physicist and engineer. He was an incredibly intelligent man. He was a devoutly-religious man. He had a tendency, though, to look down on those who were not as intelligent or religious as he, and I certainly didn’t appreciate that about him. To that end, he appreciated my intelligence (sometimes to the point of testing me). He loved that I was an avid reader, believed me to be a good writer, and praised often my ability to do The New York Times crossword puzzle with a pen without cheating. He did not so much, however, appreciate my ambivalence toward church, and was once overheard telling my mother-in-law that he thought my personal background– the child of poor, uneducated people, one of whom was a drug addict and alcoholic– was potentially going to lead his daughter into ruin.

Unlike Michelle (that was my ex-wife’s name), he was an avid lover of film and he appreciated this about me as well. We had similar tastes to a point and talked often about old movies. As a military man, he loved war movies. He also loved westerns and science-fiction films. He was a purist, though, and would loudly denounce any movies that he considered “immoral” and would endlessly berate me if I appreciated movies that did not fit into his worldview of morality. He had a personal vendetta against movies that depicted religious people as “crazy” and, as a scientist, had an irritating habit of refusing to enjoy a science-fiction film for the pure amusement of watching a science-fiction film. He would nitpick the science in such films. He would spend an entire movie debating the plausibility of the film’s science. He would also, as you have probably already figured out, condescend to me if I was able to overlook such flaws in a film’s narrative, or (in some cases) was ignorant of the scientific principles he was trying to educate us on. All of this made choosing films for us to watch together difficult, so I usually left options for film-viewing up to him.

For a brief period during the spring of 1995, while Michelle and I were still dating, I lived with her family. I shared a room with her brother and had use of one of the family vehicles in exchange for $125 a month and once-a-week babysitting services for her younger siblings. It was not an ideal situation, no, but it was helpful to me and the personal things I had going in my life at the time. Over one weekend during this period, Michelle and I had been tasked with going to Schnuck’s to rent a few movies for the family to enjoy over the weekend. Her dad had a movie or two that he specifically requested, but had, otherwise, left film selection up to us. For obvious reasons, the prospect of doing this made us both very nervous.

One of the movies that I had rented that weekend was The Abyss. I had seen it many times since the film’s release in 1990. I had seen it in theatres multiple times. I can actually recall, during high school, growing weary of renting it all the time, so I connected one VCR to another and recorded myself a copy to watch over and over again at home. At that point in my life, I considered it among my favorite films and had probably watched it, from beginning to end, twenty-five to thirty times. I recall Michelle and I having some debate amongst ourselves at the store over whether or not this film would fit into her father’s wholly-unreasonable-to-us criteria for a good, science-fiction film. Having seen the film (Michelle had not), I knew that there was nothing objectionable in the film’s content to give his religious side a fit of apoplexy, but I could not speak to the science.

As it turns out, her father had actually seen the film already. When we came home and told him what we had rented, he said, “That was a really good choice.” I asked him if he had seen the film before. He confirmed that he had. I asked him if he had liked it, and he said something very confounding: “I thought it was fine. I thought the tsunami looked fake and didn’t appreciate the heavy-handed anti-war message, but the action was good. I like Ed Harris.” Michelle and I breathed a collective sigh of relief and went about our business.

But I kept coming back to my father-in-law’s critique of the film. TsunamiAnti-war message? What in hell was my father-in-law talking about? There is a sequence with a hurricane. Is that the tsunami he is referring to? Am I going to get berated if I point out the not-so-subtle differences between a tsunami and a hurricane? And what anti-war message is he talking about? The Russians lose the nuke, the Navy Seals try to recover it, Ed Harris disarms it, the end. If there’s an anti-war message in this, it is very, very subtle and, quite frankly, a bit of a reach. I let it go, deciding in the end that it was far better to keep the peace with The Colonel than it was to argue the finer points of this movie. Just watch it again, enjoy it, and shut the hell up.

So I did. The whole family gathered to watch this movie, a movie that I had proudly proclaimed as one of my favorite movies. I had seen it many times before. I could pretty much quote the dialogue. Imagine my confusion when this upteenth viewing was revealing things I had never seen before. Scenes that were longer, conversations with more dialogue, entire sequences that I had never seen before.

This is how I discovered that one of my all-time favorite movies had been extended into a “director’s cut” that was 31 GOD DAMN MINUTES longer than the movie that I knew and loved. The Colonel confirmed that he had only seen the movie a year or two ago, which means that the version he saw and had critiqued, the one whose critique I had questioned in the back of my mind, was an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT MOVIE than the movie that I had seen. The Abyss had fallen victim to something that I call “director’s cut syndrome.”


Now is the time in this entry when I admit that my ex-wife and her holier-than-thou father have very little to do with this week’s drop further into the labyrinth. Now is the time that I admit that I probably could have said what I have to say in this entry without ever once mentioning them. The only thing that they really have to do with the movie that I am highlighting this week is that they are the reason I was introduced to the concept of “the director’s cut” in the first place. They are the reason I discovered that one of my favorite movies of all time had been changed into a completely different film. What I really want to talk about this week is director’s cuts and how much I despise them.

The extended cut of The Abyss (I have never actually seen this new version referred to as “a director’s cut”) is the lone exception to the statement I have just made.  The changes that James Cameron has made to what is, in my opinion, his best film actually transform a pretty-good science-fiction film into a pretty-great science-fiction film that is actually about something other than underwater thrills and action. But we’ll get to that in a bit . . . right now, I have a diatribe about director’s cuts and how they usually ruin otherwise good films.

I have right now in my personal film collection three different versions of Apocalypse Now. I have three different versions of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I have six (six!!!) different versions of Blade Runner. All three of these films are movies that meant a great deal to me when I first saw them, and I will admit that I only own these “director cut” versions because the box sets that I purchased also included the original versions of the films. The director’s cuts of Apocalypse Now and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are especially egregious because these new versions only have a longer shot here or an extra scene there, leaving a viewer confused as to why all this extra footage is necessary when it doesn’t add anything to a film that is already pretty highly-regarded and universally-loved. Ridley Scott, at least, justified his original re-cut of Blade Runner with explanations as to why the changes were better and had been changed by the studio for the original cuts (namely, removal of a voice-over track and a different, darker ending), but then he kept tinkering with it. There have been six versions of this film over the years, all of them vastly different. None of them, clearly, a cut that makes Ridley Scott happy. So, I ask this: if the director himself has never been happy with six different versions of his film, why should I care about any of them?

Amadeus Poster

Two other famous examples of director’s cuts are especially anger-inducing: Amadeus and George Lucas’ 1997 “Special Edition” of the original Star Wars trilogy. Why are they anger-inducing? Because they superceded the original versions, became the director’s final word on the matter, and made the original versions obsolete. The original versions of these films no longer exist. You cannot buy them in stores, you cannot stream them, you cannot pray that some theatre somewhere is going to do a midnight revival. The original versions are persona non grata. This style of director’s cut effectively tells a viewer that they were wrong to have loved the movie in the first place. So wrong, in fact, that we are going to erase it from existence and punish you by never letting you watch it again. My friends over at Mashley at the Movies are especially peeved about Amadeus. Both of them rank the original as their favorite film of all time. Both of them have been robbed by Milos Forman of the right to ever enjoy their favorite film again.

With all of that said . . . I do have to confess an affinity for the longer extended version of The Abyss. It is flat-out a better movie. It is an entirely different movie, with better character development and an addition to the plot that makes the ending mean something more.

Have you seen The Abyss? If you haven’t, be warned that spoilers await.

The original version of the film is nothing to sneeze at, I assure you. As I’ve already stated, I think it is the best of Cameron’s films, and I think it has aged more effectively. The special effects are cutting edge. The action sequences are top notch. It is true that, aside from Bud (played by Ed Harris) and Lindsey (played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the characters are fairly one-note, defined mostly by their names and job titles, but the action film that isn’t a victim of this (especially in the late 1980’s) is a very rare exception. And the ending . . . the ending is admittedly rushed and somewhat false.

The plot centers around a deep-sea oiling rig that gets enlisted by the government to be the headquarters and waystation for a crew of Navy Seals (led by Lt. Coffey, played by a really, really creepy Michael Biehn) that are attempting to recover the nuclear missiles of a Russian sub that disappeared under mysterious circumstances. As the film progresses, the oil rig gets hit by a nasty hurricane, the crew of the oil rig learns what the Navy Seals mission is and tries to stop them, and we learn that “mysterious circumstances” means “underwater aliens”. Eventually, Coffey is so mentally-deteriorated by the bends (read: the effects of constant underwater depressurization) and fear of the aliens that he attempts to destroy them, causing his own death, and leaving the unprepared, blue-collared crew of the rig to descend into a seemingly-bottomless underwater trench on their own to rescue and defuse the missile before they run out of oxygen and suffocate in their own destroyed submersible. In the end, the good guys win and the aliens thank them by taking them to the surface before they die. Please keep in mind that I have intentionally described this plot as simplistically as possible; the original film is little more than a well-done action film.

The extended version adds to this story in many ways. First is the character development. Extra lines of dialogue in scenes add dimension to characters that were previously somewhat flat. Extended scenes add drama between characters that did not exist before (especially Bud and Lindsey, who were, at one point, married). Restored footage adds depth and motivation to Coffey, exploring in greater detail what depressurization is doing to his mind and body.

Favorite Movie Villain #1 – Lt. Coffey | reallystupidrants

One of my favorite additions is a scene that depicts the entire crew of the rig performing their daily duties while they conduct a singalong to Linda Rondstadt’s classic song “Willing”. It doesn’t add anything to the plot. The scene itself is totally unnecessary. But it does show how much the crew loves each other. It depicts them as a close-knit family. This adds to the drama later in the film where actions that seemed to have no motivation beyond “it’s my job” now carry a little more weight.



The best addition to this new version, though, is in the plot. In the original version, Coffey meets his end after an ill-advised submersible chase and Bud is forced to descend into the abyss to recover the missile. It is at this point in the extended version of the film that the plot of the film becomes wildly divergent. Bud successfully defuses the missile, but finds himself being held hostage by the aliens at the bottom of the trench. They are not happy that this weapon of mass destruction has invaded their otherwise peaceful space. It turns out that while Bud and company have been fighting to survive in their destroyed oil rig, the aliens have believed that this missile in their midsts was sent as an act of declared war against their race. They have retaliated by threatening to kill the human race with a tsunami, massive tidal waves poised on the world’s coasts, ready to drown the human race until peace-keeping accords are met. This . . . this must have been the anti-war message that my father-in-law felt so heavy-handed. This is, possibly, not a surprising reaction for a man who devoted his life to the military.

I have often wondered why James Cameron made cuts to this film that compromised the film’s meaning and intent. I read recently that he was originally given complete control of the film’s final cut if he was able to maintain a strict running time. I guess at the time  he was okay with an inferior film if it meant that he could get it produced. In my opinion, his original ending is false and takes an otherwise A+ film completely off the rails in the final act. Why that is such a strange statement from me is that I did not realize this until I saw the extended cut several years later. It only took one viewing of this extended cut to decide that it was a vastly superior film, and this cut is the version of the film that I choose to watch whenever I feel the need to revisit the crew of the Deep Core.

The copy of this film that I have in my personal collection contains both versions of the film, but it also contains an extensive documentary about the making of the film. This film is, on its own, plot and characters aside, a technical achievement that James Cameron should have been given more credit for at the time. It still ranks for me as one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made.

Now, if I could only have a version of Star Wars: A New Hope that doesn’t have Greedo firing first than my science-fiction film collection would be complete.

The Abyss (1989)

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