Thirty years ago, James Cameron pivoted away from masculine action pictures into more humanist filmmaking.
It’s been 35 years since James Cameron made a name for himself with The Terminator, and in that time he’s had a massive impact on the filmmaking landscape. But his actual output of directed films is pretty low. If you don’t count Piranha 2: The Spawning (which he doesn’t, because he was fired two days into filming), Cameron has only directed seven films, which is a Malickian average of one movie every five years. James Cameron only makes a movie when he’s good and ready.
As it happens, four of those films celebrate significant anniversaries this year: True Lies came out 25 years ago this July, The Abyss is 30 in August, The Terminator is 35 in October and his most recent film Avatar turns 10 in December. To commemorate these milestones, I’m going to look at each film and talk about what makes them special.
1989’s The Abyss is the hinge movie of James Cameron’s career, his first big swing for the fences and the emergence of the depths of his ambition. It continues the themes of his earlier films but presents them from new angles. It’s the first time in his works that the military is anything less than heroic, and the first time he worked in water before Titanic and his now-lifelong love of oceanography. The lean, pitiless filmmaker of Terminator and Aliens was reborn as a broad social critic, eager to literalize the more sub-textual elements of his earlier work.
Now, about the plot: an American nuclear submarine, the USS Montana, loses power and sinks into the Cayman Trough after an encounter with a mysterious glowing entity. Desperate to rescue any survivors, the Navy enlists a crew of deep-sea oil drillers for a salvage operation. The crew, headed by Bud Brigman (Ed Harris), live and work nearby on an underwater drilling platform called Deep Core. They’re joined by a platoon of Navy SEALS, as well as the rig’s designer, Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a tough as nails engineer who also happens to be Bud’s ex-wife.
So you got your civilian blue-collar hero crew venturing into an unknown situation and the military presence in the SEALS, led by Cameron mainstay Michael Biehn as Lt. Coffey. There’s also a scruffy/sensitive man in Bud and a hard-ass woman in Lindsey. These are the same pieces that set-up both Terminator and Aliens, but the enemy they face is where things start to change. In The Abyss, the threat is internal; it’s the part of people that can be twisted into monsters by their own fears. The film opens with a Nietzsche quote: “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” The Abyss‘s science fiction conceit literalizes that idea: what the characters see when they peer into it is a reflection of what lies inside them.
Water surrounds the protagonists of The Abyss at all times and presses down on them with lethal intensity and separates them from any communication or support. Before descending to the Core, Lindsey warns the SEALS of the dangers of high-pressure nervous syndrome, a disorder that can affect divers and lead to psychosis. But the macho SEALS ignore her warnings despite her insistence that it can happen to anyone, and it’s in Coffey that the syndrome manifests, fogging his thinking and stoking his paranoia.
While Cameron keeps the action and plot rooted underwater, he (in the film’s extended cut, arguably the better version) keeps cutting topside to the rising tensions around the sunken submarine between the US and the USSR that could lead to war. That’s where Cameron’s broader social observations start to come out, the drama on the Deep Core serving as a microcosm of the tensions playing out between the peace-living civilians and the bloodthirsty warmongering of the military-industrial complex.
The crew sees the aliens (called NTI, or non-terrestrial intelligence) as benevolent, but the cautious SEALS are suspicious of their advanced technology. The culture wants to go one way, but the military wants to go another, and they have the guns. And through all the tension and excitement, Bud and Lindsey begin to reconnect, brought back together by their concerns about the soldiers, mutual affection for the Deep Core and its crew, as well as their shared fascination with the NTIs.
After The Abyss, Cameron became a different filmmaker.
Naturally, there’s the big confrontation between the crew and the SEALS and the crew wins, but not before Coffey sends an armed mini-sub down the trench to destroy the NTI civilization. Bud volunteers to take the long, dark trip into the trench to find and disarm the bomb. His mission completed, Bud is rescued by the NTIs and brought to their massive underwater city. It’s there that he learns that the NTIs are immensely powerful, and have been monitoring the growing nuclear crisis on the surface for some time.
Alarmed that humanity’s self-destructive impulses could do real environmental harm to the planet, the NTIs nearly wiped the species out but decided not to because of Bud and Lindsey’s faith/love for one another. They leave humanity with a demonstration of their awesome power in the form of massive waves that rise up on every coast around the world, hold mid-crest, and recede again back into the ocean. A reminder to humans that they are just a part of a much larger system.
In Terminator and Aliens, the military are brave heroes trying their best to keep people safe from a scary other, literalized as robots and monsters. But in The Abyss, the Other can’t be shot or blown up; it’s a benevolent civilization with immense power, happy to leave humanity alone until the specter of nuclear apocalypse looms.
The heroes are an estranged married couple brought back together by their ability to work together, their faith in each other. And the titular abyss isn’t just the trench in the ocean; it’s the frightening distance between people. It’s what Bud and Lyndsey peer into when they examine their long-crumbled marriage, what the United States and the Soviet Union see during their decades-long nuclear stand-off. The only way to conquer that abyss, the movie says, is to embrace it — to stop fighting and trust in the good in the universe to return that trust.
There’s a moment when Lindsey is talking to Bud about the intentions of the NTIs and says, “We all see what we want to see. Coffey looks and he sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that.” What we see is what we chose to see.
After The Abyss, Cameron became a different filmmaker. He still made muscular action movies with spectacular set-pieces, but they became much more actively concerned with the emotional lives of their characters and their cultures. In T2, Sarah Connor loses her humanity by embracing violence, while the Terminator gains his through his friendship with John Connor. True Lies examines the limits of the macho action hero stereotype. Titanic strips the alien metaphor away and tells a more pessimistic story about humanity ignoring the danger of nature, and Avatar is another story about someone finding his best self through his empathy for an alien culture.
There were bigger things to come for Cameron; soon he would be as big as any filmmaker alive. But The Abyss was the summation of everything Cameron had done before, and a statement of purpose towards what he would be doing next. It’s the place where he really started to do his work.