Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mini Masterpieces Within Mediocre Movies: The Abyss

At the end of the 1980s, my career as a film critic was coming to a self-imposed end. I knew it was time to move on because I was beginning to hate the politics, hate what you had to do to get published, hate everything I was watching and, frankly, hate what I was writing. Philip Kaufman's exceptional 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the movie that made me want to write criticism. So many ideas pounded through my head after seeing that film for the first time that I just had to write them down. Eleven years later, I'd had enough. But before I drew a curtain around that part of my writing and working life, I looked for ways to still be engaged by what I was seeing on the screen. For my own amusement, that was when I created what I called Mini Masterpieces Within Mediocre Movies (MMWinMM).

MMWinMM was pretty self-explanatory. In even the most god-awful film there was sometimes one sequence where, if the film had continued to explore some of the ideas developed there, the god-awful could have, maybe, turned into the heaven sent. Sometimes, it became the only way I could even sit through some films. From time to time, I will bring you some of those moments from that era, plus films I've added to the 'pantheon' since. Today, since it seems appropriate with all the hoopla around Avatar, I'm going to talk about the one absolutely knockdown brilliant sequence in James Cameron's The Abyss (or as star Ed Harris called it, The Abuse).

In case you've forgotten, a brief synopsis (from is in order: "A civilian [deep-sea] diving team are enlisted to search for a lost nuclear submarine and face danger while encountering an alien aquatic species." There was half a good movie here. The bad part? The stupid aliens. Cameron's not Spielberg and everything dealing with them was cack-handed. The good half? The one that dealt with the crew, led by Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, striving to not only recover the lost sub, but to also subdue a Marine (well-played by Michael Biehn) who had begun to develop deep-water psychosis.

The MMWinMM began when the Marine snapped and attempted to destroy the deep-water habitat and kill everybody aboard. As he tried to ram the habitat with one submersible, Harris and Mastrantonio gave chase in another. They defeated him, but their submersible was damaged and it began taking on water. The habitat, and safety, was hundreds of feet away. There was only one diving suit and tank aboard the fast-flooding craft, meaning only one can survive. In a profoundly moving and tense sequence, (they were a long-separated couple who had begun to fall in love again) Mastrantonio convinced Harris, the stronger and faster swimmer, to take the suit and tank. She would deliberately drown herself and, in the extremely cold water, her body would be plunged into a fast and deep chill, meaning if he could get her back to the deep-sea habitat in time he could perhaps revive her.

Harris reluctantly donned the suit and mask and then, in helpless horror, watched Mastrantonio drown herself. Cameron then deftly cut to Harris madly swimming back to the habitat, pulling Mastrantonio's lifeless body behind him. If you wish to see the film and its one truly magical scene, I'll keep what happened next to myself. The biggest problem with Cameron as a filmmaker (beyond his generally bad screenplays and poor direction of good actors) is that he's afraid of real emotion and feeling (and that includes the horrid and overwrought Titanic - I've yet to see Avatar, so no comment). So, it was not surprising that shortly after this sequence ended, he shifted gears and brought on the ridiculous aliens. A decision that almost, but not quite, destroyed all the good will this remarkable sequence had built up.

Nothing else that came before or after (save for a few of his groundbreaking CGI effects and his visuals) came close to the power this simple sequence contained. In a few elegant minutes, Cameron, for once, managed to tell us everything we needed to know about this couple without overburdening the imagery or ramping up the hysteria.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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