Tuesday, March 22, 2011
MOVIES MADE ME #11: THE ABYSS
This past weekend, I saw my first drive-in movie. Seems strange that it’s taken me 32 years to get around to it. Until now, I’ve had to experience the drive-in vicariously through Joe Bob Briggs. I’d like to report that my first drive-in experience was a double-feature of grindhouse classics... but I’d be lying. Instead I saw THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, a ho-hum adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story. I didn’t realize it was a Philip K. Dick story until the end credits, because the philosophical sci-fi elements were almost entirely overwhelmed by a mildly engaging love story between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.
The most interesting thing about the film was its basic premise: We (humans) can’t be trusted to not destroy ourselves. This theme has been done many times before – and with better results. The first example that springs to mind is James Cameron’s THE ABYSS.
At first glance, THE ABYSS is simply a variation on Cameron’s earlier film ALIENS. It’s about a group of blue-collar workers in a no-man’s land who encounter an alien life form… Except this time, the workers are underwater oil riggers instead of “space truckers,” and the alien is not the real threat. In fact, the aliens in THE ABYSS come to Earth to save us from ourselves. When the U.S. military is confronted with something it can't explain, Uncle Sam starts gearing up for a nuclear war. The only thing that can save humanity is… a broken marriage. This movie’s “heart of the ocean” is the relationship between head oil rigger Ed Harris and his estranged wife Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, two tough-as-nails characters who I have to assume bear some similarities to the Hollywood power couple that produced the film. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that these two characters are the saving grace of humanity, but they are certainly the saving grace of this film.
Although it’s a little slow getting started and rather heavy-handed at the end, I will always love THE ABYSS for the beauty of one particular sequence. In a last-ditch effort to save humanity from nuclear disaster, Ed Harris puts on a dive suit, consents to breathing oxygenated water (easier said than done, I imagine), and descends more than a mile into the darkness of the ocean so that he can defuse a bomb. The trip threatens to literally crush his head and drive him mad. Along the way, he becomes lost and completely disoriented in the freezing blackness. He has only one lifeline: His wife speaks to him remotely, telling him to focus on her voice as she reassures him that he’s not alone. Eventually, she brings him back from the brink of despair.
This sequence has always made a strong impression on me, because it’s a brilliantly evocative metaphor for death – the one trip that we must all make alone. Appropriately, even after Harris’s character defuses the bomb, he still has to face the inevitable. He realizes that he doesn’t have enough air to survive the ascent, tells his wife he always knew it was a “one way ticket,” and surrenders to fate. Part of me would really like the end the movie there, before the psychedelic jellyfish intervene and threaten humanity with 100-foot-high tsunamis.
Then again, I have to admit that the tsunami images made a big impression on me the first time I saw the special edition of this film. For years, I’d been having dreams about tsunamis, although I had no idea what a tsunami was. In his day and age, of course, it’s virtually impossible not to know what a tsunami is… but when I was a kid, I’d never heard the term and I did not consciously realize that ocean waves could be big enough to swallow a city. It was my dreams that introduced me to the concept and, when I saw it in THE ABYSS, I felt like James Cameron had reached into my nightmares. (Ditto for Peter Weir’s THE LAST WAVE.)
The 100-foot-high tsunami in THE ABYSS remains one of the most haunting images I can imagine (though it's been recreated with better visual effects in a dozen disaster movies), because there is nothing to do in the face of a sight like that except stare in awe. You could run, but you can't hide. I remember a passage in one of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, where a man was about to be crushed by a giant monster. (In this case, the monster was a 100-foot-high mutant conglomeration of human bodies instead of a 100-foot-high wave.) Instead of running, he simply stared at the monster moving toward him and thought: I might as well die now, because even if I live another hundred years, I’ll never experience anything to top this. That’s the thing about “the abyss” – it is terrifying, but it is also awe-inspiring. In a moment like that, a person has to surrender to something larger than oneself. Surrender to despair, surrender to love, surrender to the unknown...
In my mind, that's what makes Cameron's film(s) so resonant. He knows that we live our lives searching for something large enough to fill the abyss. And sometimes we don’t even know we've found that something until the moment when we are facing the void. In that moment on the brink of annihilation, we’d all like to be able to confront death the way that Ed Harris’s character does… understanding and accepting that we’ve always had a “one way ticket,” being grateful for the things we've found along the way, and standing ready to confront the great unknown.
Labels: James Cameron