Saturday, January 24, 2009

Suspense in a Submarine: The Abyss

(Spoilers: The Abyss)

Last time I examined a sequence from The Abyss. The sequence ended with Bud (played by Ed Harris) and Lindsey (played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) stranded in a small submarine that had lost power. What follows is the best scene in the movie. And one of the many reasons it works so well is how it uses suspense.

To create suspense in a scene, the audience needs to know that something bad is going to happen at some imminent point if the characters do not achieve their goals. Then you throw obstacles in the characters’ way and heighten how horrible the potential disaster will be. And make sure you take your time. Time is required to build the tension in a suspense scene. No quick cutting action here!

So let’s look at the stranded submarine scene from The Abyss.

The scene starts with a deceptive lack of tension. Lindsey and Bud are discussing the bigger problem of the story – a nuclear bomb has been sent toward an underwater alien population and they must come up with a plan to retrieve it. This allows the audience to relax, which is a little trick to toy with our emotions. Slowly we realize along with the characters that they’re in more immediate trouble.

There’s a leak in the sub. It’s slowly filling with freezing water and only Bud has a diving suit. The characters aren’t panicked. They’re smart people trained for this kind of thing. They start to look for a solution to their problem. Lindsey tries the radio, but it’s been damaged. They realize help will come but probably not fast enough. Bud tries to fix the leak, but it’s behind a piece of equipment bolted to the wall. He tries to find tools to remove the equipment but no luck. Lindsey tries the emergency air but it’s been damaged too. She suggests Bud swim back to the nearby underwater facility and bring her a diving suit and tank. But he does the calculations in his head and realizes that it will take too much time. Meanwhile, the water is rising…rising…

Two things are happening here. Number one, there’s a “ticking clock.” This is an extremely useful device in suspense. The cliché is a bomb with a timer counting down. As it gets closer to zero the tension increases. In the sub the rising water has the same effect. And it’s happening gradually which allows the tension to build in the audience.

Number two is the characters are eliminating alternate solutions. As one possible solution after another gets shot down the characters’ panic – and the audiences’ – grows. The situation is getting more desperate. Finally Lindsey comes up with the only solution. She’ll drown. Bud can then swim with her body back to the facility where they can (hopefully) revive her with a crash cart. She thinks the freezing water will allow her to be revived after as much as ten minutes. Bud doesn’t like this idea but it’s clear now it’s their only choice.

Then we see Bud watch Lindsey drown in an incredibly heart wrenching scene, owing largely to some tremendous performances by the actors (hey, it ain’t ALL in the writing).

Bud swims to the facility and the crash cart is brought out. They try to revive Lindsey several times with no success. Everyone gives up. Except Bud. He keeps trying. And after long, long minutes Lindsey finally comes around. Okay, this last bit may be kind of cliché but by this time the movie has earned that emotional moment with the strength of the scenes before.

Suspense is a powerful tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal and too often ignored in favor of action or shock. This scene is a good example of using it effectively.

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