The Abyss
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"[1][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."[2] 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."[3] 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.[4] Finally, the third method of review focused on Gale Ann Hurd alone.

Marjorie Rosen, in her article "The Hurd Instinct" in Ms., traces Hurd's career and her personal quest to find "a brand new kind of action heroine."[5] Rosen points to Sarah Conner in THE TERMINATOR, Ripley in ALIENS, and to Lindsay in THE ABYSS as manifestations of this "new heroine" and concludes that

"certainly none has made the splash that Hurd has in the emphatically male-dominated action-movie arena."

Rosen's approach functions as subverted auteurism, elevating the producer to this "revered" film post.

What Rosen fails to prove, however, is that Hurd actually possesses a power over the images of the film. Can Hurd be responsible for a feminist slant while a male director calls the shots?[6] As with many explicatory criticisms in the past, Rosen accepts Hurd's intention to create a "new heroine" without probing deeper than surface level. In fact, there is not one serious, symptomatic criticism of this film. Writers, so far, have hesitated in taking the leap into the abyss to adequately discuss what this complicated text says about issues of the Cold War, patriarchy and gender.

THE ABYSS' characters have missions defined by an outdated Cold War mentality. Everything is officially explained in terms of "us vs. them," setting the stage for a world always divided in two. In the opening sequence when the officer says, "It's not one of ours," we realize that this group defines things in relation to themselves. They can only tell us if some "other" belongs or does not belong to their group.

In his book Male Fantasies, Klaus Theweleit investigates the insecurities in the Freicorps literature that preceded Nazi Germany.[7] By studying the poems and letters of these "soldier males," Theweleit attempts to illuminate the "male type who finds life without war and weapons unimaginable" (p. 24). Navy Seal Lt. Coffey exhibits many characteristics of Theweleit's soldier male. Coffey exists according to the structures of the rigid world of the military. He follows its rules and regulations religiously. In return, the institution gives him power through rank. Coffey is in charge of Operation Salvo and clearly enjoys his control. As he briefs the rig crew on how Operation Salvo will proceed, Coffey uses his maps and charts as symbols of his authority and relishes his ability to take charge. Closing the session, he barks:

"I want everyone ready to get wet in fifteen minutes."

Coffey would not possess such power without the military. As a result, Coffey perpetuates a Cold War mentality to protect his power and control.

In the film, this Cold War mentality moves beyond the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to affect gender issues. The primary threat to Theweleit's man is Woman. Lindsay is a strong woman with many "masculine" traits. She is independent, determined, abrasive and involved in an industry frequently assumed to be male-dominated: oil. To undermine this strength, Cameron immediately introduces Lindsay as non-male and stereotypically weak. Stepping off a helicopter, we first see one male boot, then another, and then Lindsay's leg in pantyhose and a pump. Cameron attempts to harness Lindsay's power by keeping her "feminine," but his image of her is inconsistent. After characterizing Lindsay as non-threatening, he later finds her connection with Nature, especially water, very threatening.

Theweleit stresses that women were considered to exude

"peaceable, life-affirming traits that were acquired by humans in [an] aquatic era" (p. 292).

Such a connection between woman/ nature/ water/ peace proves very important in THE ABYSS. The water is Lindsay's domain. It is the place of her work, her community and her love-life. Although she and the crew have their differences, there is a bond of friendship and loyalty that empowers them as a group. When Coffey descends into such a "peaceable, life-affirming" environment, his power diminishes. This is portrayed in Coffey's inability to physically endure the water pressure.

Immediately following his arrival onto the rig, Coffey shows signs of pressure-induced psychosis. He notices his hands shaking when he arrives on the rig, which, as Lindsay explains, is one symptom. Quickly losing his reasoning capabilities, Coffey takes drastic action to remain conscious by slicing his arm with a knife. Thus, while Lindsay acclimates to the deep-water environment, Coffey loses control. Lindsay's association with nature continues when, at the beginning of the film, a man on the Explorer (the boat on the surface) communicates to Bud down on the rig that Hurricane Frederick is headed their way. Bud replies: "I think hurricanes should be named after women, don't you?" At this moment the man's papers blow off his desk as the camera glances over to see Lindsay in the doorway. Here, Lindsay is visually connected with a powerful natural force that disturbs the male world. Thus, to Coffey, she is the ultimate threat.

The relation between Lindsay and Lt. Coffey is driven by Lindsay's protective instincts and Coffey's insecurities. As the designer of the rig, Lindsay assumes a mothering and protective role when Coffey threatens her domain. She refuses to let him destroy her work and community with his paranoid beliefs. When she learns that he has brought a nuclear warhead onto her rig, she storms into his quarters. As Coffey tries to conceal the table behind him, Lindsay reaches around to remove the cloth he has hiding the warhead.

Theweleit describes his soldier male's defense mechanisms:

"the eternally stilted, cool, formal conduct; the ceremoniousness; the stiff distancing even from 'good' women — all could be seen as manifestations of the attempt to ward off castration" (p. 198).

Coffey's defenses obviously break down in competition with Lindsay, for her assault on Coffey's warhead is exactly that, castrating. Coffey glares at Lindsay and says:

"You are becoming a serious impediment to our mission."

This statement throws us back into the "us vs. them" mindset, but this time the "us" of which Coffey speaks is men, not the United States. Lindsay is not a threat to U.S. security, but a threat to Coffey's male identity. Resenting her opposition, Coffey tries to control both Lindsay's identity and her actions.

Repeatedly throughout the film Coffey refers to Lindsay as "Mrs. Brigman" to which she clearly objects. Aside from just irritating Lindsay, Coffey uses this title to deny Lindsay's autonomy. It is comforting for him to pull Lindsay's identity into the realm of patriarchal marriage. In response to Lindsay's actions, particularly her threat of castration, Coffey flaunts his power in the form of sexual assault. Coffey shoves Lindsay up against a wall and says: "This is something I've wanted to do since we first met." We see Coffey's hands go off-screen below his waist as we hear what seem to be two zippers opening. We quickly learn that it was the sound of ripping tape which Coffey uses to cover Lindsay's mouth. Of course, the rape reference is clear. Cameron, in his tight shot which excludes the lieutenant's hands, seems to enjoy the momentary power of man over woman. This liberating moment for paranoid males ends, but it still leaves behind the uncomfortable feeling that Coffey is capable of victimizing Lindsay. Finally, Lindsay does prevail. Battling in submersibile vehicles, Lindsay succeeds in pushing Coffey's broken vessel over into the abyss where that submersible and Coffey himself implode from the pressure.

Lindsay is not the only threat to Coffey's world. The NTI, or aliens, are just as harmful. Each alien takes a different form. Lindsay encounters a small phallic alien and a larger disc-shaped one, whereas Bud and Jammer (a member of the crew) see bird-like creatures. Every alien, however, has a neon glow. After Lindsay meets the alien outside the rig, she tries to convince the crew that what she saw was not "man-made." She tells Bud:

"It wasn't clunky, it was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. It was a machine, but it was a dance of light."

Lindsay sets the alien apart from the "clunkiness" of "our" submarines. Despite these descriptions, Coffey is convinced that the alien is really a Russian invention and therefore a threat. We learn, as the film progresses, that it was the NTI who caused the U.S.S. Montana to crash. What the spectator wonders, however, is did the alien approach the sub with the intention of destruction?

We learn to trust the aliens since they save Bud, Lindsay and the crew. But should we take the kindness as applicable to all humans or only to the ones who challenge a world based on war? Evidence suggests the latter. In a brilliant show of special effects, an alien enters the rig as a tube of water. The spectator occupies the subjective viewpoint of the creature as it winds its way through the corridors and meets the crew. The meeting is one of mutual inquisitiveness and bonding between the crew and the alien. Unfortunately, during these tender moments, Coffey who is separate from the group, sees the phallic tube of water extending out of the Moon-pool and shuts the door to the hallway that the tube has traveled down. This castrating action destroys the alien. The crew is splashed in water as the severed tube falls to the floor, while the alien's base, in the Moon-pool, rears back and retreats into the sea.

Remembering Theweleit and the soldier male's defenses against castration, we could say that Coffey inflicts on his enemy what he is most fearful of. Finally, since they cut off electrical power whenever they appear, the aliens are a threat to Coffey's ability to make war. All lights, communication systems and power for propelling submersibles fail when an alien approaches. Therefore, the aliens threaten Coffey's power both literally, through electricity, and figuratively, in their friendly relations with Coffey's opposition: Bud, Lindsay and the crew.

Through the fact that both Lindsay and the alien threaten Coffey, they are connected. Each one's "otherness" challenges the world that Coffey strives to protect. Linda Williams, in her essay "When the Woman Looks," explores the role of woman in the horror genre and specifically the moment when the heroine and the monster look at each other.[8] Williams states that it is in this moment that the heroine's

"look at the monster recognizes their similar status within patriarchal structures of seeing" (p. 85).

Lindsay and the alien experience this recognition in their meeting when Lindsay goes outside to retrieve extra oxygen tanks. As she works, her light goes out and she loses contact with the crew inside. By now we know what this means. The small alien appears behind Lindsay and as she turns toward it, we watch her from the subjective position of the alien. Soon this alien swims away and, from the abyss, a huge alien slowly rises. Lindsay and the creature look at each other in two pairs of shot-reverse shots. This sustained looking without dialogue offers a definite break to the fast-paced tempo the film has exhibited so far. The look establishes the peaceful nature of the two participants and thus their shared difference to the patriarchal structure Coffey upholds.

The looking scene goes further to include a touch. Lindsay reaches out to the alien and we see the touch in a close up. This touch, like the look, characterizes the two as compassionate, for as Lindsay slowly caresses the alien's surface, she smiles and the creature does not swim away.

Furthermore, the touch provides another difference from Coffey. Theweleit points to the soldier male's

"fear that bodily contact produces a lightning flash, a body blow" (p. 42).

Thus the soldier male fears touch in its association with physical harm. Indeed, Coffey does not touch anyone throughout the film except in acts of violence. Ultimately, the look suggests more than a simple connection between Lindsay and the alien, it constitutes an identification between the two, as Williams' argument suggests. This provides the motive for Lindsay's continued defense of the aliens throughout the film. After this experience, Lindsay returns to the rig and, battling Bud's skepticism, says:

"We all see what we want to see. Coffey looks and sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that."

Lindsay's plea to "look with better eyes" is meant to correct the unaccommodating gazes on herself, as a woman, as well as those on the alien.

THE ABYSS stretches Williams' thesis to include men as well as women. Bud has a scene of looking and touching with the alien, which is almost identical in shot structure to Lindsay's scene. The alien comes upon Bud as he is lying next to the disarmed warhead waiting to die. Again, we occupy the subjective viewpoint of the alien, which is followed by two pairs of shot-reverse shots. This time it is the alien who reaches out to touch. As the two clasp hands, the alien pulls Bud up into its ship to safety. Bud is different from Theweleit's men who

"look for ecstasy not in embraces, but in explosions" (p. 41).

He, like Lindsay, does not fear the touch or the embrace of another being. Therefore, in contrast to Coffey's masculinity, Bud appears feminine. This feminization occurs in Bud's transformation from disbelief to belief in the aliens. His ability to accommodate an "other" establishes a connection not only between Bud and the aliens, but also between Bud and Lindsay.

The film emphasizes the bonds between Bud, Lindsay and the alien in the scene when the alien visits the rig. Lindsay is the first of the sleeping crew to awaken and see the tube of water extending into the cabin. She calls out to Bud and then to One Night (a member of the crew). The initial fear that the crew experiences is soon alleviated by the friendly, playful nature of the visit As Lindsay and Bud stand directly opposite the alien, it takes the form of their faces one at a time. These mirror-like reflections resemble sculptures made with water. Lindsay smiles at the alien's game and its image of her smiles back. Turning again to Williams' argument about the look, we find that

"the monster is one of many mirrors held up to [the woman] by patriarchy [and] she also encounters in this mirror at least the possibility of a power located in her very difference from the male" (p. 96).

THE ABYSS, in a very literal way, uses the monster/alien as a mirror for the woman. But as I have argued, the film also holds this mirror up to certain men. Bud and Lindsay prove their difference from Coffey's world of hate and fear and, as a result, find a power that is feminine.

This female power saturates the film through the film's sustained elaboration of the theme of childbirth. Most of the action takes place in womb-like spaces: the rig, the submersibles and the body suits. Symbolic umbilical cords are also prevalent. The Explorer on the surface is connected to the rig by a huge cable; Bud and Jammer are connected inside the submarine with a red rope; and Lindsay is connected to the rig when she walks outside in her suit.

The most obvious birth reference, however, is the breathing of the oxygenated fluorocarbon liquid emulsion. In the dramatic scene where Bud must breathe this liquid to travel down into the abyss, the Navy Seal, who is sympathetic to the crew's plan, coaches him by saying:

"We all breathe liquid for nine months, Bud. Your body will remember."

Here the strength of the mother-child bond appears. Bud becomes the child who seeks the peaceful protection the womb and its liquid provide in order to disarm the warhead. This childbirth connection with Bud also extends to other instances in which Bud occupies the parent position. When Bud and Lindsay find themselves trapped in a leaking cab with only one body suit, Lindsay drowns. Bud carries her body back to the rig. The crew attempts to resuscitate her but with no success. Unwilling to accept defeat, Bud renews the effort, and Lindsay eventually regains consciousness. In reality, Bud plays a maternal role by giving Lindsay life after she had returned, symbolically, to the womb by breathing water. Revival happens again at the end of the film when the aliens lift the rig up to the surface. It is another rebirth, at the hands of Bud (since we know he is behind the rescue), this time for the whole crew including Lindsay. The push from the ocean womb into the open air gives the crew a new beginning.[9]

The film ends, in familiar Hollywood fashion, by reconstituting the couple. After Lindsay emerges from the rig, she sees Bud emerging from the alien ship. Lindsay goes to him. Recalling the previous scenes with the alien, Lindsay and Bud first look at and then touch each other's faces. The last shot of the film looks down on the couple kissing. I want to resist the common feminist complaint that the woman, after an entire film of independence, is simply recuperated into male patriarchy. For with Bud's connection to the alien, to childbirth (both as child and mother) and to Lindsay herself, Lindsay enters a "feminized" male world. The film consistently empowers the "others" in patriarchal society: women, feminized men and non-humans. Presenting the horrific possibility of a mad male world, THE ABYSS posits an alternative that is both peaceful and progressive.

But there is a rather haunting, unsettling aspect to Cameron's ending, as well, in the return to the surface. Working within fantasy, Cameron's films are set in "unreal" places like outer space or the ocean floor. Underwater, THE ABYSS promotes peaceful feminism, but as we decompress and reach the surface the unbelievability of the conclusion undermines this progressive tone. The final shots of the huge alien ship emerging from the water into "real" space, ironically appear less believable than the rest of the film which had taken place in an "unreal" space. Perhaps it is only an unreal space which accommodates female empowerment Once the characters leave the water, the utopian possibilities vanish. Lindsay's connection to Nature, Bud's feminization, and Coffey's powerlessness all required water and submersion. The ocean setting facilitates the transference of power from warriors to "life-affirming" people. Thus, as Lindsay and Bud reunite in a new non-patriarchal structure, the spectator recognizes that they are out of their environment. The gender fluidity that has occurred underwater is now like a fish out of water. We can only wonder how long it will last.


1. Ansen, David. "Under Fire, Underwater." Newsweek (August 14, 1989) v. 114, page 56.

2. Calhoun, John. "The Abyss." Theatre Crafts (August 15, 1989) v. 23, page 44.

3. Schickel, Richard. "Water Bomb." Time (August 14, 1989) v. 134, page 79.

4. Rafferty, Terrence. "The Current Cinema: Dead in the Water." The New Yorker (September 4, 1989) v. 65, page 89-90.

5. Rosen, Marjorie. "The Hurd Instinct." Ms. Magazine (September, 1989) v. 18, page 66-71.

6. This idea of gendered authorship is a separate study in itself. I feel it is necessary to mention, however, since previous reviews of the film have stagnated on the creative team of Cameron and Hurd and the completion of their third feature together. My article's focus is on textual issues in THE ABYSS.

7. Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

8. Williams. Linda. "When the Woman Looks." in Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp and Linda Williams, eds., Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, The American Film Institute Monograph Series, Vol. 3, Fredrick MD: University Publications of America, 1984. Pages 83-99.

9. I only point to this parenting role for Bud in the most general way to introduce the idea of matriarchy. I recognize that the focus on Bud's role as a "mother" risks an incestuous reading in the reunion of Bud and Lindsay.