Like a fish out of water
by Jody Lyle
from Jump Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 9-13
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1993, 2006 Everywhere water. Peaceful water. Then suddenly, out of the limitless blue, comes a long, gray U.S. submarine. Quick cut to inside the vessel to find an exclusively male group of seamen trying to identify an object approaching at an unheard of speed. "I'll tell you what it's not, it's not one of ours," an officer shouts, doing his best to identify the approaching object. Suddenly the sub loses power and rocks violently in the wake of the passing "other." Unable to regain control in time, the submarine collides with a sheer rock face and is destroyed. There are no survivors. Welcome to James Cameron's world of THE ABYSS (1989). Unlike the male-dominated beginning of the film, the characters' gender identities remain as fluid as the surrounding substance in which the film takes place. Written and directed by a man, James Cameron, but produced by a woman, Gale Anne Hurd, THE ABYSS is a interesting text to discuss issues of gendered authorship. The film does not present a balanced picture of male and female characters just because each sex has had its representation in the production process. Indeed, THE ABYSS seems to favor a feminist, or at least progressive, perspective. Battling preconceived notions of sexual power, the film characterizes certain male characters as "feminine" and certain female characters as "masculine." These fluid boundaries engulf conventional patriarchal structures and ultimately dilute the power of unaccommodating male figures in the film. THE ABYSS revolves around the search for the U.S.S. Montana, the nuclear submarine that sinks in the film's opening sequence. Recruited to assist in the search is the crew of an underwater oil rig, led by Bud Brigman (Ed Harris). The U.S. Navy sends down four Navy Seals, commanded by Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), to direct the search. Lindsay Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the designer of the rig and Bud's estranged wife, accompanies the Seals. When Lindsay arrives on the rig, she and Bud renew their marriage battle. As the search progresses, Lindsay sights an unidentified object, which the crew labels Non-Terrestrial Intelligence (NTI). Believing that the NTI is really a Russian submersible, Coffey and the Seals secretly enter Phase Two of Operation Salvo: retrieving one warhead from the sub to destroy the threat. The crew discovers Coffey's intention, but only after the warhead is dropped into the abyss where the NTI are believed to be living. Bud, breathing oxygenated liquid to protect his lungs from the pressure at great depths, descends into the abyss to disarm the warhead. The film concludes when the NTIs rescue Bud and the crew on the rig by lifting them to the surface and allowing for the reunification of the couple: Bud and Lindsay. At the time of the film's release, reviews of THE ABYSS took three separate shapes. First came the uninspired reviews about the film's action/adventure potential.Newsweek characterized it as "thrilling, dumb and irresistible"[open notes in new window] and Theatre Crafts proclaimed it a "repeat of [Cameron's} formula for success [with] monsters in the ocean instead of on land or in outer space." Most biting, however, Time moaned that "one is pining for a rubber shark or a plastic octopus — anything, in fact, out of a good old low-tech thriller." Second, many reviewers chose to focus on the interesting relationship between James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd. Having worked on THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS as husband and wife, Cameron and Hurd were newly divorced during THE ABYSS' production. Reviewers could not resist hypothesizing about the connections between Operation Salvo, Bud and Lindsay's rocky marriage and the ex-spouses. Finally, the third method of review focused on Gale Ann Hurd alone. Marjorie Rosen, in her article "The Hurd Instinct" in Ms., traces...
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