Seeing and Believing: Suspension of Disbelief and Cameron’s THE ABYSS
15 April 2012
Without fail, James Cameron’s films take viewers into a new world. At the heart of every Cameron film there is always an “every(wo)man,” the average, ordinary protagonist, who is either brought to a new world/place or exists within a world/space very unlike the one we, the viewers, know as reality. Yet, viewers are willing to suspend their disbelief regarding this new world, even though it is wildly unfamiliar, because the “every(wo)man,” the character whose story we watch, is familiar. That is, the character becomes the key to unlocking the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
For example, Ripley, the “everywoman” from Aliens, finds herself on a strange, alien-infested planet. Through this character, the audience finds themselves in an unfamiliar, futuristic location, completely foreign to them, and, accompanied by Ripley, they accept this place as a reality for the duration of the film. Furthermore, Jack, from Titanic, is just an ordinary “everyman” trying to get by in life, but he finds himself onboard the most infamous ocean liner in the 1912-world. Thus, the audience is swept back in time, sailing toward tragedy on a ship no viewer could be aboard in reality, so disbelief suspends in order to experience Jack’s adventure with him. Through each of his films, Cameron takes viewers somewhere by anchoring the audience’s acceptance of these strange new places with believable and relatable protagonists. His 1989 film, The Abyss (1989), is no exception. Miles below the ocean’s surface, Cameron invites his audience to experience a world within our own world, one most viewers have never seen for themselves. But, if Cameron wants his audience to accept his generous invitation into another world, he must offer a tour guide, of sorts; a protagonist who the audience can connect with, a relatable person who they will suspend their disbelief for. In The Abyss, Cameron’s protagonist, Bud (Ed Harris), is key to the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
In short, The Abyss begins with the crash of a nuclear submarine. Military deep-sea divers are hastily enlisted to search the wreckage for survivors, as well as recover the nuclear weapons, before foreign enemies can reach the wreckage. However, a brutal storm threatens the area just as the expedition is to begin, which poses a threat the divers, as well as the deep-sea platform, Deep Core, on which they are stationed. While exploring the wreckage, one of the military divers begins experiencing a serious nervous system disorder, caused by the pressure surrounding him at the ocean’s depth. These problems continue to escalate, as do other problems for the crew from the brewing storm. In addition, the crew encounters NTI, an acronym for a non-terrestrial intelligence, or an alien species, at the wreck site. In the film’s climax, Bud must take hold of the conflicts existing within the crew, self-sacrifice to prevent a nuclear explosion, and come face-to-face with the strange new life form, all miles below the ocean’s surface.
Suspension of disbelief, as it pertains to this particular argument, is the theory that the audience ignores reality while watching a film; the audience willingly disregards that they are in a movie theatre watching actors perform a fictional script, which, when shot and edited together in a, likely, year-long process, comes together to create a, roughly, 2-hour story in projected moving pictures. Instead, the audience watches the story as though they are observing reality. They laugh, cry, close their eyes from violence, and more as this story unfolds before their eyes. All-in-all, suspension of disbelief is foundational to cinema; it is necessary to viewing a film.
That said, suspension of disbelief has its naysayers, those who do not believe the theory holds water. From a cinema perspective, the naysayers might argue if suspension of disbelief existed viewers would actually think they might drown while watching water flood into the submarine in The Abyss, or they themselves might die if the nuclear weapons detonate in the film. Because viewers don’t actually fear for their own lives while viewing Cameron’s film, the naysayers argue the theory cannot exist.
Yet, the theory must exist on some scale. If the audience could not suspend their disbelief at all then why would one ever watch a film? Without suspension of disbelief an audience member could not invest into a film enough to make the experience meaningful; if one could not engage with a film, either emotionally or intellectually, one would not watch film because the experience would be fruitless.
Therefore, suspension of disbelief must exist on some type of sliding scale. The audience is willing to suspend their disbelief, but only to a point, and that point very likely depends on the film. In The Abyss, yes, the audience will suspend their disbelief enough to watch Bud free fall down to the ocean floor in an effort to save the world from a nuclear explosion, but they themselves will not feel as though they might die if he does not detonate the explosives.
The question then becomes, how does a director know how far he/she can push the audience on this sliding scale, meaning how does the director know not to ask too much of his/her audience’s suspension of disbelief. In The Abyss Cameron asks a great deal of his audience’s suspension of disbelief. Not only do we have to accept a new world we know nothing about, one deep below the ocean’s surface, we also have to believe a nuclear submarine crashed, the weapons were compromised, the Soviets are in pursuit of those weapons, poorly trained and inexperienced divers are America’s only hope at solving this problem, and a violent hurricane is raging in the midst of all this to complicate the situation more. And, as if that were not enough, there is also the matter of the NTIs, the glowing aliens.
Everything up to the glowing aliens is well within the confines of what Cameron can ask of his audience’s suspension of disbelief; after all, this is an action/adventure film. In an action/adventure film the audience is looking for an escape from reality; in fact, by definition that genre calls for a hugely exaggerated, perhaps even unrecognizable, version of reality, and audiences know that going in. With The Abyss, audience members, somewhere in their conscious minds, are very grateful they are not living in a world where a nuclear submarine crashed, causing the world potential catastrophic danger. They are also grateful they are not being called on, as the characters in the film are called upon, to save the world from this epic threat. Yet, those same audience members are interested in observing the adventure in that reality, from a safe place (a comfortable, cushioned chair in a movie theatre), entirely free from any consequence. The Abyss allows the audience to travel into the deep-sea, witness a submarine crash, see nuclear weaponry, and be present for all the narrative’s dangerous twists and turns. That’s exciting and fun, mostly because it’s all of the adventure will none of the risk.
The aliens, on the other hand, tilt the suspension of disbelief sliding scale too far. Because of their minimal time in the film, the alien species serve no other purpose than to magically save the day in the film’s 11th hour. Seemingly out of nowhere, this species swoops (or swims) into the film and rescues Bud, as well as his crew, transporting them all safely to the ocean’s surface. Suspension of disbelief will allow the audience to accept Bud breathing oxygen infused liquid instead of air while free-falling thousands of feet below Deep Core to detonate the nuclear weapon, but being saved by a friendly, glowing purple jellyfish-like alien, who appeared completely out of nowhere, is too far outside the realm of belief for any audience member to suspend.
Cameron pushes the audience’s suspension of disbelief too far with the NTIs, which compromises the credibility to his film. Audience members who believe the NTIs are preposterous, even laughable, may then be unwilling to suspend any disbelief for the film, making their viewing of the film an entirely fruitless experience. Clearly, that is the risk a director takes when challenging the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Fortunately for Cameron, his is a skilled filmmaker, and his underwater shots, particularly of the crew’s investigation in the sunken submarine Montana, are mesmerizing. They are unique, completely unlike shots seen in any other film. Also, this film was shot in an abandoned nuclear power plant, so these underwater shots are authentic, never feeling as though computerized technology generated the scenes artificially. The quality of Cameron’s work and his skillfulness as filmmaker save The Abyss, because, without those things, his overshooting the mark on the film’s fantasy level could have easily turn audiences off to the film.