In the eighth grade class that I teach, we recently read Ray Bradbury’s short story “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed,” about a group of families who journey to Mars to set up colonies because of an imminent nuclear war on earth. There are no Martian aliens in evidence. The villains are on earth.
In our class discussion, we considered different types of science fiction literature, which basically fall into three types. The first is where the aliens are the bad guys. Think War of the Worlds. Second, where the aliens are the nice guys. Think ET. Third, where the aliens are not a factor and the point of the story is to meditate on the current state of affairs on earth. Think of the recent Interstellar or the classic The Incredible Shrinking Man. Bradbury’s story is an example of the last type, and so is the thoughtful thriller The Abyss.
The film opens with The Montana, a U.S. Navy nuclear missile submarine, encountering a strange illuminated object moving at very high speeds. There is no collision but because of the confusion that is created, the submarine collides into an underground canyon wall. Catastrophe strikes and the sub with its crew falls to the bottom of the sea. The Americans set out to launch a rescue; but because a hurricane is moving in, time is of the essence, and the only quick remedy is to insert a Navy SEAL team onto a commercial underwater drilling platform from which the rescue will commence. In the meantime, accusations are thrown back and forth between the United States and Russia, with both accusing each other of starting a nuclear war.
Into this highly stressful situation enters Dr. Lindsey Brigman, the platform’s chief designer and engineer. She arrives to oversee the rescue mission personally since it involves the unorthodox and potentially dangerous use of her drilling platform. Greeting her is Virgil “Bud” Brigman, the manager of the drilling group who also is her estranged husband. They argue at first, but realize the mission is what has brought them together and they must put aside their personal feelings in the service of their goal.
Complicating factors is the mental instability of one of the SEAL team members, Coffey, who is tasked with retrieving a missile warhead and arming it in case the Russians attack their ship.
This sets the stage for a number of creative action sequences where the relationship of Bud and Lindsey is tested in the crucible of life and death scenarios.
One particularly memorable scene depicts Bud and Lindsey in a small cubicle that is being flooded with water. As the water level rises, their only thought is survival. All the old memory tapes of past dysfunction are erased. What remains is their essential love for one another. They reaffirm that love when each urges the other to live and survive even when it means the other will die.
The Psalmist tells us that “he who plants in tears will reap in joy.” The commenters interpret this to mean that when people go through crisis together, it binds them for life. No longer are they fault-finders. No longer do they say negative things about one another. No longer do they think only of themselves.
Indeed, by sharing another’s pain, we begin to think less of our own needs and more about pleasing the other, more about what binds us together than what separates us. In The Abyss, Lindsey and Bud have an epiphany as a result of a shared crisis. They realize that their love for one another transcends the mundane divisive issues that often plague our most treasured relationships.