Exposition in Cameron’s The Abyss

Yesterday I had the enormous privilege and honor of watching James Cameron’s The Abyss on the big screen, sitting next to the movie’s concept designer Ron Cobb. The last time I saw the film in a cinema was at a preview before its release in 1986.

The scene in this clip is a trademark Cameron setup.

Remember the unobtainium – ‘floating rock’ scene in Avatar? That is a case of exposition that some love and others loathe.

This scene from The Abyss sits around about the same time into this movie and sets up an equally important concept, which will be crucial in the movie’s climax.

The scene is in my view one of the most supreme examples of exposition. It combines character and tension with essential story information.

It shows how James Cameron has always been a tremendously gifted screenwriter.


In fact – and contrary to the unobtainium scene – Ron Cobb confirmed to me that the fluid breathing system is not sci-fi but fact.  Hippy’s rat is submerged in actual fluid breathing system liquid and in this scene it is really breathing underwater. Apparently, Beany the rat survived for quite a while afterwards and died of natural causes.

(On the contrary – as you might have guessed – in the movie’s climax Ed Harris did not breathe liquid. The glass of his suit was tinted amber to suggest it was filled with the liquid.)


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5 thoughts on “Exposition in Cameron’s The Abyss”

  1. Karel,

    It’s always a pleasure to see you and have time to talk and catch up a bit.

    Just in case you are challenged about the liquid breathing suit, I should add a few more details.
    First, as I’ve said, I was not there during the shooting and much of what I heard came later from people on the crew, but long before working on The Abyss I had been aware of this new technology and was delighted to find it featured in Jim’s script. Apparently the U.S. Navy proposed developing and using this technique as a means of assisting crewmen to escape submarines disabled at great depths.

    Yes, in Cameron’s feature the tinted helmet was used to imply Ed Harris was breathing the oxygenated fluid circulating in his suit but this was true for only the underwater long shots. The difficult detail, for Ed, was that his tinted helmet was not full of air, it was filled with clear water! Harris had to hold his breath for each take while pretending to breathe as long as he could. When his need for air became acute he would grab the handle (in front of his helmet) and open it, as a signal to a relief diver, who would bring him a regulator. The reason for all of this was Cameron’s well known desire for realism. Jim wanted the fish bowl distortions and waving hair created by the flooded helmet. The tinting was only used to disguise the clear water inside.

    On the other hand, the closeup shots, of Harris putting on the helmet, and filling it with the chemical, used a different illusion. This time the helmet was clear and the fluid that filled his helmet was tinted. All of Ed’s reactions were (as with the underwater medium-long shots) the art and craft of acting as he pretending to panic and then breathe the fluid while holding his breath.

    Good old fashioned floor effects.


    P.S. All effects aside, I have been assured that the rat sequence used the actual oxygenated hydrocarbon as a fluid and was real.

  2. That was a great scene.

    I read a produced script recently where the writer was reassuring everyone that the effect we are seeing is real. After the description was the explanation “(Yes, that’s how it works, and yes, you can buy them.)”

    BTW – It would have been oxygenated fluorocarbon, rather than hydrocarbon. It’s similar, except with fluorine atoms instead of hydrogen atoms. (Breathing hydrocarbons would be like breathing petrol!)

    Fluorocarbon can also be used to wash out your lungs – because it just evaporates out afterwards. They also experimented with using it to get good lung X-rays … the idea is that could get the patient to liquid breath and then take X-rays continually until it evaporated .. the theory was that you could see what bits of the lung were being blocked.

    Great in theory – pretty useless in practice which is why it never got out of the ‘let’s do it with sheep’ phase. But it was a pretty cool concept !!!

    I often wondered what the ASPCA made of that scene. As they point out the rat isn’t very happy about it. It always seems odd that to make a film you kill hundreds of animals to feed the crew meat for every meal, yet you can’t show real animals facing their real fates on set .. because that is ‘cruel’ !

    BTW – I absolutely loved the Abyss … except for the last couple of minutes with the ‘break all the rules’ Deus Ex Machina ending.

    (Best scene, though – was definitely Bud’s choice to let his lady drown. It’s the logical choice that I never thought I’d see in a film – because it isn’t the heroic choice

    Great film.)

    • Mac,

      Yes, of course, It is oxygenated fluorocarbon. I’ve always been bad at remembering chemical designations. I guess if I had been technical adviser on The Abyss I would have killed Beany.

  3. The Special Edition DVD version is a must see. Pretty much an entire reel was cut for the theatrical version, and in the SE there is more to the underwater alien rescue scene, making it a more satisfying conclusion. There is also a great documentary in the special features on the making of the film, including the rat scene. The radio-equipped diving helmets were real and functional too, with much of the dialogue in the underwater scenes recorded this way; They just had to edit out the regulator noise in post.


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