Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Maggie 2010: A Diatribe About Alien Morality

#118. The Abyss

Sometimes customers ask me why Gen X doesn't have a special director's section for James Cameron (Aliens, The Terminator, T2, Titanic, Avatar, etc). Rest assured, the power duo of our fine establishment has delightfully catty answers more than worth the one-on-one inquiries, but I'm happy to say I've finally found my own, five-word rejoinder to the issue, which goes a little like this:

"Have you seen The Abyss?!"

Forget the insulting alien/"primitive cultures" let's-all-focus-on-the-white-man's-destiny! narrative of Avatar: if you want really asinine alien foils, you've gotta watch this P.O.S. 1989 film.

See, there's this ballistic missile submarine lost in a deep ocean trench that needs to be salvaged, so the U.S. sends in a SEAL team to retrieve its warhead via an experimental underwater oil platform. One member of the drop team is Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who conveniently has an estranged husband, Bud (Ed Harris), to contend with on the oil rig -- a common enough device in disaster flicks that you have to wonder if couples in movies ever repair their broken relationships through non life-or-death means.

Meanwhile, the weather's getting really shitty and strange creatures (Non-Terrestrial Intelligent Lifeforms) pop up with enough frequency that one of the team members, Lt. Hiram Coffey (Michael Biehn), eventually tweaks due to High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (and with a name like Coffey, no one saw this coming?). Being military and all, he thus wants to blow up whatever's lurking in the deep, while everyone else thinks that isn't such a good idea. Merriment and death ensue.

Okay, so that's not too spoiler-y, but this next part will be--because when I invest a couple hours in a film I tend to get really pissed off when the payoff is a patently absurd use of alien species as deus ex machina. I'm looking at you, Knowing!

So (SPOILER) Bud and the gang foil Coffey to a degree, but he's still managed to deploy the warhead they were all sent to retrieve in the first place. Thus, somebody's gotta go deeper than any human's ever gone before to disarm it, and Bud bravely volunteers for the task. On his way down he's texting the old school way, via arm-mounted computer device, and he and his wife fix all their assorted problems while he waits to die. (Actually, this is pretty convenient, as marital resolutions go.) But wait! He doesn't die after all, because those strange lights he sees at the end aren't just from the pressures of deep sea diving: they're signs of an alien mothership, where an alien/angel figure takes him and saves his life. How sweet.

Oh, but it gets sweeter. With thousand-foot tsunamis just hanging around the world over, these aliens admit to Bud that they`re responsible for all the crappy near-apocalyptic conditions on the surface. The reason? Well, they flash TV images of war and poverty at Bud, implicitly demanding that he account or atone for human monstrosities. Bud offers his average-and-decent-working-guy rejoinder, then asks them why they aren`t just wiping humans off the planet if we`re so terrible. The aliens` response is priceless: they flash pictures of the text messages Bud sent to his wife about loving her and the duty of sacrifice. Aw. Cue the rolling back of these massive tsunamis, and when Bud and the gang are returned to the surface, it`s with the feel-good message that the aliens would just like us to be a little nicer to each other from here on out. Smiling military officials on the surface seem to agree. Double aw.

You know, it`s hard enough trying to comprehend how people wrap their heads around an omnipotent being`s justification in wiping out most all of creation in a massive flood for the sins of certain adults, but when you try to suggest that an incredibly advanced alien civilization would a) watch human transmissions so selectively as to miss every single feel-good TV program promoting all the good things people also do, b) be more willing to commit genocide themselves rather than just put a warning buoy around the whole solar system to warn other alien species away from our nuisance planet, and c) change their (selectively wrought!) verdict for the fate of the entire human race on the basis of a single text message... you lose me. You really, really lose me.

Dear James Cameron: Aliens with the technology to interfere so profoundly in human affairs are probably not morons, unless you`re also considering how moronic it would be for any more advanced civilization to bother with a species as idiotic as ours at all. You yourself KNOW this, because somehow you managed not to fuck up the very movie Aliens (thank you, Ridley Scott, for all your help in this regard--though that certainly doesn`t give you a pass for Robin Hood)!

With Avatar, Cameron at least had the weak excuse of lifting an overdone story from many other venues--so the stupidity of Pocahantar with Wolves is not entirely his own. To my mind, however, The Abyss gets no such free pass. It`s just (dear reader, you were waiting for this: be honest) Abyssmal. And that is my new personal reason for being proud to work at a video store with a No James Cameron Director Section Policy in stringent effect.

Also, Titanic. But that`s a whole other can of worms.


madkevin said...

What pisses me off about Cameron so much is that The Terminator (along with the first two Alien movies) are some of the best rules-based genre fiction ever. Both the alien and the Terminator (once you accept the basic premise) work logically along established rule-sets and, time-travel notwithstanding, do not egregiously break any known laws of the physical universe.

The ending of The Abyss is, erm, abysmal, but where the wheels REALLY fall off is T2. T2 destroys the airtight paradox-free plotting of the firsts movie, replacing it with an Ouroboroesque loop of Skynet being built from technology legt behind from a Terminator that never would have been built without Skynet. AND it manages to OUT-STUPID The Abyss ending by suddenly having the Arniebot exhibit behaviour that the movie itself took explains was impossible. Oh, and this is wrapped inside a movie that thinks you can have an anti-war message by shooting about a thousand extras in the kneecaps.

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