Stuff We Love: The clever solution to the life-or-death problem in James Cameron's The Abyss

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Apr 7, 2017, 3:12 PM EDT

Newbie geeks know James Cameron from his body-shifting eco-friendly film Avatar. But older fans may remember his 1989 film The Abyss. The film isn’t as universally loved—the ending was a bit too abrupt and pat—but I consider it a must-watch movie because of one particular scene.

The Abyss is a story of deep-sea oil riggers who are tasked with helping Navy SEALs establish a base of operation as they recover a nuclear warhead. The SEALs trigger a series of events that leads to ... aliens. Underwater aliens.

Here’s the set-up: Laid-back Bud (Ed Harris) runs an oil rig, but sharp-tongued engineer Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) has designed it. Oh, and they’re ex-husband and ex-wife. Anyway, SEAL team leader Coffey (Michael Biehn), who is suffering from pressure-induced psychosis, grabs a mini-submarine and the nuke in order to attack the aliens. Lindsey and Bud give chase in their own mini-submarine.

The underwater fight scene was epic enough. But not more epic than what happens. Bud and Lindsey’s vessel is damaged and rapidly taking on water. There’s only one dive suit. How do they both survive?

One of the reasons I'm fascinated by this scene is that there's no lead-in. When Lindsey climbs into her ship, we're given no hint that she's leaving behind a critical piece of survival equipment. Today, that would have been telegraphed, and it would have taken away the surprise of their predicament.

Because it's a science fiction film, you may expect the heroes to rig up an underwater breather in the nick of time. You could anticipate a last-minute rescue. But no, that's not what our heroes decide.

If I had a list of all-time favorite scenes, this would be at the top. It’s an unexpected solution to a life-or-death problem. By choosing death.

See for yourselves. And let me know in the comments what your single favorite scene is.

N.B. One more thing I love about The Abyss: the remarkable novelization by Orson Scott Card. Card reels the story back to the protagonists' childhoods. Bud, Lindsey, and bad guy Coffey are given motivations for why they behave the way they do.