Hello, Tor.com! Welcome back to the Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia… sort of.
You see, Bob, we’re doing things a little bit differently today. As you may or may not know, O my Peeps, this past week was Mardi Gras, and concurrently things here in New Orleans have been just a little bit fun-yet-insane, as is right and proper. Therefore, in the interests of PARTY TIME, EXCELLENT, I decided to give my long-suffering sisters a bit of a break re: nostalgia, and go catch some beads and eat king cake and dress their progeny up like Ghostbusters instead. Because I am a caring and benevolent eldest sibling, I’ll have you know.
Ergo, instead of watching a movie and having the three of us nostalgize about it (yes, I have just verbed “nostalgia”, step back), I thought I’d fly solo this week, in order to talk to you about a realization I recently had about me, and some dude named James Cameron who never amounted to much in Hollywood oh wait.
Because we need to talk about James Cameron, and how he created, both by accident and design, something of a watershed moment in both cinematic history and much more importantly in my own personal popular culture horizon embiggenment. Mostly because it’s probably not the watershed moment you are thinking of.
What is the moment I am thinking of, you want to know? Of course you do! Click on to find out!
Because, you see, the James Cameron moment I am talking about is not Avatar, or Titanic, or the Terminator movies, or even Aliens, all of which could be considered defining moments in film history in their own ways. (Cameron, it turns out, mostly only deals in big moments, in every sense of that phrase.) No, the one I’m talking about is probably his least acclaimed film (er, other than Piranha 2: The Spawning, which I think we can safely ignore): 1989’s The Abyss.
Now hear me out, y’all.
Watershed moments tend to be tricky things to identify when they’re actually happening; they are much more the purview of hindsight. Events that seemed unimportant or transitory at the time become, in retrospect, blindingly obvious turning points in the Way Things Are (or, in the Way Things Are Done). Whatever its overall merits as a film, I contend that The Abyss represented several of these seminal moments, all at once.
The first and most obvious, of course, were the special effects. Cameron’s now-famous (or infamous) face-imitating water tentacle in The Abyss was far from the first use of computer-generated imagery to appear on film, but as I recall it, it was the first to truly grab the public’s attention—to show the audience the kind of hyper-realistic yet fantastical special effects CGI could (and would) become capable of. Cameron’s simple water tentacle paved the way for the CGI wonders of Jurassic Park and The Matrix and Lord of the Rings and everything else that followed after, including Cameron’s own later films. I don’t think it would be too much to contend, in fact, that it changed the face of motion picture special effects forever.
The second (and probably most surprising) was the political aspect of the film. I can’t be certain, of course, but I’m betting that Cameron had not remotely anticipated that The Abyss would also turn out to be, more or less, the last real Cold War movie released in America during the actual Cold War—i.e., before the Berlin Wall fell and that era quite abruptly ended. (The film was released in August of 1989, and the Wall fell on November 9th, three months later.) Given how pivotal the Cold War was to the entire plot of The Abyss, that must have been quite the thing for everyone involved.
But neither of these aspects, I must confess, really meant much to me at the time. In 1989 I was still too young to appreciate the irony of the politics of The Abyss, nor did I really understand how groundbreaking its special effects were, beyond a decided reaction of hoshit that is SO COOL.
Nor did Young Me care that plotwise, the ending of The Abyss was an implosion of nonsensical nothing (or, in the case of the extended cut, an implosion of nonsensical sermonizing), or that Cameron apparently nearly drove all his actors into nervous breakdowns during the grueling and extremely damp shooting process. I didn’t know or care about any of that; I just thought it was awesome. But for quite a long time I didn’t really examine why I thought it was so awesome.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized that what elevated The Abyss for me personally to something special wasn’t cutting edge special effects or historical relevance or even super-cool action sequences; it had all those things, for sure, but then so do many other films. No, what really pushed The Abyss over the edge, ha ha, into something exceptional for me was really just one thing: the character of Lindsey Brigman.
Lindsey was a revelation for Young Me, and I didn’t even really get why at the time, even though I certainly do now. All I knew then was that I was fascinated with her, and thus I shamelessly cajoled my sisters into renting The Abyss over and over (and over) so I could watch her and the rest of the crew of Deep Core do their stuff. (Not that my sisters argued much. Why my mother didn’t just buy the damn VHS so we wouldn’t keep spending rental money on it every other week for years at a stretch is beyond me.)
I didn’t understand the fascination, at first. But now I know that it stemmed from—well, a lot of things, but mostly from watching in awe how Lindsey so fearlessly navigated her environment. And I’m not talking about the part of that environment that you couldn’t breathe and could crush you with its pressure (and also possibly contained aliens and/or rogue nukes); I’m talking about the part of that environment that was so aggressively, overwhelmingly masculine that it had almost more testosterone in it than seawater.
The Deep Core rig, for all that she had designed it herself, was a place that was deeply hostile to Lindsey, on both accounts. And I found her courage in the face of the latter even more impressive than the former, truth be told.
It may not seem like a big deal now, but I cannot overemphasize how much her character was an eye-opener for me as a kid. Lindsey Brigman not only dared to be in the kind of profession I had been told, obliquely and subtly but all the more inexorably for that, that only men could do, but she had no compunctions about telling all and sundry comers to their faces that she was better at it to boot. She returned the hatred and sexism confronting her on all sides, even that from her own husband, with either casual competence or iron-willed defiance. She believed in herself and her principles enough to stand up to everyone on the rig when no one believed her, believed in them enough to get right up in a batshit crazy Navy SEAL’s face, to demand that her voice be heard, and to hell with anyone who thought she should sit down and shut up.
And at the same time, she was not afraid to embrace her so-called feminine side, and the strengths that that granted her. Of all the characters in the film, she was the one who most valued empathy over Cold War paranoia, who saw wonder instead of fear with the first contact of non-human life forms, whose first instinct was reasoned compassion instead of unreasoning violence.
In short, she was everything you’d want in a hero—or at least, everything I’d want in a hero—and she was a girl. It was so cool. The existence of the character of Lindsey Brigman may not have been a watershed moment for anyone else, but she certainly was for me.
And I know what you’re thinking. You’re like, but Leigh, what about Ellen Ripley?
What about Aliens, which Cameron directed four years before The Abyss, in which Sigourney Weaver portrays what is generally considered the most iconic female action heroine of all time?
And I answer, y’all. Do not think I am forgetting Ripley. She is the apple of my feminist eye! But the thing is, because of weird child-limiting experiences, I actually first saw Aliens after I saw The Abyss. And Terminator 2, of course, where damsel in distress Sarah Connor from the first Terminator movie was transformed into the most badass mother/protector possibly ever put on film, was not released until 1991. No explanation needed.
Except, there was kind of an explanation needed. Because in the process of thinking about which female action heroines really truly inspired me as a kid, I was sort of stunned to realize what you have already no doubt already noticed: of all the cinematic action heroines I saw on screen while growing up that I felt were truly worthy of the title, James Cameron was directly responsible for approximately 90% of them.
Even Ellen Ripley, whose character of course both preceded and followed Cameron’s involvement in the Alien series, counts in that tally, because the Ripley of Aliens will forever be the definitive one in my book.
Ridley Scott devotees may be baying for my blood over that one, and there’s no doubt that my preference is at least in part a personal peccadillo. Scott’s Alien was, in essence, a horror film more than it was anything else, and while I can appreciate its iconic place in that genre, I myself have never had much of a taste for horror. For me, anytime you put a horror flick up against an action flick, action is going to win every time.
So there’s that. But my preference of Aliens over Alien is owed to more than just liking action more than horror, and again the reason why comes back to how Ripley’s character was portrayed: as indomitably, unquestionably heroic.
And that’s the thing about all of these characters, really. It’s extremely difficult to explain to a hostile audience what the difference is between a genuine action heroine and an artificial “male character with boobs” one, but the difference has always been exceedingly obvious to me. Just as it has always been obvious to me that whatever that difference was, James Cameron knows it, and that knowledge has nearly always been made evident in the female characters he has created for his films.
This is not to imply perfection, of course; far from it. I’m not going to dispute that Cameron’s writing skills are frequently subpar. The scene in Titanic, for instance, where Rose’s mother painstakingly explains to Rose that they are women and therefore “our choices are never easy,” like Rose doesn’t fucking know that already, is pretty cringeworthy from a “things people would actually say to each other” standpoint. But from an “empathy with your female characters” standpoint, it’s a hell of lot more nuanced and true than what you get with 95% of male directors out there, and I appreciate that.
My point is, for all the amazing technological advances and box office mania James Cameron has bestowed upon Hollywood these past four decades, I consider it of equal if not greater significance the amazing gender parity he pioneered as well, seemingly not through deliberation but merely through enlightened personal preference. Cameron, clearly, loves his heroines, his strong independent take-no-bullshit-or-prisoners ladies, and what’s more, he respects them, to boot. He could not have created a character like Lindsey Brigman (or Rose, or Sarah Connor, or etc.) if he did not, in my not so humble opinion.
And just as his technological innovations paved the way for later SFX brilliance, I believe, his Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor and Lindsey Brigman led the way for characters like Trinity and Rey and Furiosa, and the many more female action heroines that have gloriously sprung up over the past decade or so. I do not say they are all entirely owed to him, any more than I say they are all perfect, but I do say that James Cameron has, and had, the agency and the power and the will to speak to an overwhelmingly masculine and exclusionary genre of film, and tell it, “no, I have a better idea, let’s include women,” in a time when almost no one else was bothering to do so, and the result has changed the face of action/sci-fi films forever—for the better.
And it changed me for the better, too. So thank you, James Cameron. Whatever else you do in this life, know that you let this one girl believe that girls can be heroes too, and that knowledge has been more valuable than gold. That’ll do, dude. That’ll do.
And that’s it for today, my dears! Come back in two weeks for Moar. Cheers, and a belated Happy Mardi Gras to you all!