The Problems with The Abyss
by Ryan Crierie

Version 1.0 (22 November 2010)

The Abyss, released in 1989 is regarded as one of James Cameron's best films and frequently tops the list of good science fiction movies.

However looking back at it in retrospect, you can see where Cameron's slide began as a writer.

Aliens is regarded by many people as a near-perfect film, largely because the people in the film behaved like real people and the plot holes were not large enough to significantly impact your enjoyment of the film.

The Abyss however, is a different story. In this film, you start to see nonsensical things happen in order to force the plot onto a path that the director/writer wants to happen; a trend which would culminate in Avatar.

Nonsensical Event One: The SSBN

The Montana, a Ohio class SSBN is on patrol somewhere. They encounter an anomalous craft which plays with them. All good and fine? Instead of going to radio depth and reporting the incident to CINCLANT and requesting a fast attack to sanitize them...the Captain of the Montana decides to follow the anomalous craft...into an underwater mountain range.

Even though we have 192 nuclear weapons on board, and are a major strategic asset, let's chase whatever just buzzed us into an underwater canyon.”

During the underwater chase, the anomalous craft passes close enough to cause electrical problems on the Montana and exposing it to it's turbulent wake. This of course knocks out the hydraulics that control the diving planes long enough for the Montana to hit the side of a rock outcropping.

From there on, it's only a hop skip and jump to a series of cascade failures that end up with the Montana at the bottom of the ocean.

What is truly interesting is that we're able to locate the general rough area of the Montana incident from statements made during the film:

These statements help nail down the location as being in this rough area:

Rough location for the events of the film circled in yellow

The depths shown on Google Earth don't match up quite right; giving me 2,700 to 3,500~ feet; but this is acceptable, because Cameron didn't have access to high resolution digital sounding maps of that region when he was finalizing the movie's plot in 1986-1987.

But what doesn't match up is the location and the fact it was a SSBN that went down. What possible reason could there be for a SSBN to be prowling 80 miles off the coast of Cuba? The water is shallow and you are close to major Cuban/Soviet ASW assets.

Simply having a fast-attack go down with a loadout of one or two nuclear Tomahawks doesn't offer the forced tension and anti-nuclearism that you would get from a SSBN. So the SSBN had to go down. Even if it made no sense at all.

Nonsensical Event Two: Forced Foreshadowing

There's a short exposition by Lindsay about High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, and how 1 in 20 people can't handle it and go nuts. Of course, the leader of the SEAL team, Lt. Coffey gets annoyed with Lindsay about this and explains that: “these guys have been tested at these depths, Miss Brigman.”

Foreshadowing? No sir! Not at all!

Of course, Coffey is suffering from HPNS. This isn't Chekhov's gun. This is Chekhov's loaded bazooka.

More to the point, wouldn't the U.S. Navy make sure through it's Personnel Reliability Program that people who are susceptible through HPNS aren't assigned to nuclear device salvage operations at great depths?

As before, logic gets shoved over to the side to ensure a pre-determined outcome the way the writer wants it.

Nonsensical Event Three: Why do we need a Nuclear Device?

“You will find a nuclear device from the wreck, arm it and hold onto it for no damn reason at all, sailor.”

“Remove explosive bolts one through six in counterclockwise sequence.”

Shortly after the first encounter between the DeepCore crew and the USO (Unidentified Submersible Objects) at the Montana wreckage, there's a conversation between Lt. Coffey and his superiors topside.

Superior Officer

“Did any of you see it?”

Lt. Coffey

“No, sir. The Brigman woman saw it. It could have been a Russian bogey.”

Superior Officer

“Oh, CINCLANTFLEET's gonna go ape shit.”

“Two Russian attack subs, a Tango and a Victor, were tracked within 50 miles of here.”

“Now they don't know where the hell they are...”


“I haven't got any choice.”

“I'm confirming you to go to phase two.”

“You'll recover one warhead, arm it...and wait for further instructions.”

Let's consider this for a moment and think things through.

So the SEALs recover and arm a single nuclear warhead.

What do they do with it? What's the objective that requires a live nuclear device? How is it to be delivered to the target?

Are the SEALs going to swim up to a Soviet submarine and attach it to the hull like a limpet mine?

The only way the recovery and arming of a nuclear device makes any sense is as a method to sanitize the wreck of the Montana.

Consider the following facts about the wreck:

So the SEALs go and arm a single device, dial the yield down to a few kilotons, set a timer and destroy the wreck to keep it out of Soviet hands.

But that would have made too much sense; and would have prevented much of the plot of the later acts, so the writer forced it onto a nonsensical path to get the results he wanted.

Nonsensical Event Four: Apparently driving a submersible at 2,000 feet is like driving a car.

15 minutes of instruction is all I need!

As Hurricane Fred barrels down onto our intrepid cast of rig-workers; One Night finds Bud and says:

Coffey's splitting with Flatbed! I showed him how to work the controls, and they're outta here!”

This is simply ridiculous. SEALs have a lot of knowledge on submersibles, because they do operate Seal Delivery Vehicles (SDVs), but those are floodable ones, not dry submersibles like the ones that DeepCore uses. Additionally, there's a lot more than just “this makes you go forward, this makes you go backwards”, especially for such a complex piece of machinery as a submersible that operates at 2,000+ foot depths.

This is generally a major trope in movies, as the villain or hero has a general degree in “military” or “science” enabling them to drive or fly almost anything. But in The Abyss, it's specifically used to set up major plot points and force things to go the way the author wants it to.

Which leads me into my last point....

Nonsensical Event Five: Single Points of Failure are OK at 1,700+ feet!

“Damn it Bud, fire the explosive bolts to jettison the umbilical!”

Put bluntly...

Why is there only one way to disconnect DeepCore's umbilical? Why is there only one submersible on DeepCore equipped with the arm to disconnect it?

That's a single point of failure; and you don't want those when you're operating at those kinds of depths. Any sensibly designed DeepCore would have had a remotely operated unlatch/release system for the umbilical, a backup manually operated unlatch system that can be done with the robot arms, and finally an emergency release system using explosive bolts to sever it in case the last two systems failed.

Finally, you'd have more than just one robot-arm equipped submarine assigned to DeepCore.

This to me, is the really big deus ex machina that outright takes logic, drags it into a alleyway and beats it senseless.


You could still have kept a lot of the later plot of the Abyss even with a logically designed umbilical:

So you're now stuck at the bottom of the ocean, and you've lost some backup power and air. People are slowly getting more irritable from the stress, and in the middle of this, the USOs start to 'play' with the crew of DeepCore.

You could even have a DeepCore crewmember die as a result of USO interference. He's outside doing some really dangerous/precise work when the USO buzzes around and causes the rig to lose power, resulting in an accident with fatalities. So everyone on DeepCore (with the exception of Lindsey) is inclined to agree with Coffey when he says:

“Look, they've killed one of ours, I say we take a nuke from the Montana, arm it and roll it down into the Trough.”

It would have made for a more interesting plot, rather than “civilians are friendly towards the aliens, the military wants to destroy it.”

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