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Film / The Abyss

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The Abyss is a 1989 Science Fiction film, written and directed by James Cameron and starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn. The original musical score was composed by Alan Silvestri.

The movie follows the efforts of a U.S. SEAL team, inserted into a civilian experimental underwater oil rig, to salvage a nuclear submarine that sank after an encounter with an unknown underwater presence. Before long, they find themselves trapped underwater in the Cayman Trough and their communications with the surface cut off while a hurricane rages above them. As tension mounts and tempers flare in the tight quarters, they discover that they are not alone in the Cayman Trough - something unknown and inhuman is watching them...

The Abyss might forever hold the record for the most technically complex film ever made. In order to make it, Cameron, crewmembers and major cast members had to become dive-certified since some of the filming took place in a set built inside (and under the surface of) a flooded, partially-built nuclear reactor containment vessel.note  Many of the visual effects shots were done with precisely constructed models and green screens; the "water tentacle" was a wildly expensive, difficult and groundbreaking piece of CGI effects.note  With today's tech-infrastructure, the movie could be made at a fraction of the cost with full CGI, but in 1989 the shots were often live footage combined with green screen models, matte photography, animatronics and CGI elements.

A novelization of this film was written by Orson Scott Card, based on the screenplay. Mastrantonio, Biehn, and Harris read the first two chapters, which were extrapolated by Card from the script, to prepare for their characters.

Character tropes (including the aliens) go on to the Characters Sheet.

This movie contains examples of:

  • '80s Hair: Not quite so obvious on the crew, but the SEALs have some rather non-regulation hair going. In the extended version, the newscast reveals some spectacular 80s hair on the newscasters and crowds. A bit of Truth in Television, since SEALs are free to have non-regulation hairstyles (within reason) as long as it doesn't interfere with their operations, though most still keep their hair fairly short while on deployment.
  • A Wizard Did It:
    • According to the novelization Lindsey really did die from drowning and was only revived by the aliens.
    • The aliens also make it so that the protagonists immediately go up to the surface without feeling any ill-effects. This is lampshaded by Lindsey.
  • Abstract Scale:
  • Action Prologue: The submarine accident.
  • Alarm SOS: After Lindsey finds out that the Navy SEALs have brought a nuclear warhead onto the rig, she goes to their room and demands that they remove it. When one of them threatens to have her forcibly removed and has another SEAL grab her, Bud triggers an alarm. This brings the rest of the rig's crew to the room on the double and causes the SEALs to let Lindsey go.
  • All There in the Manual: The novelisation was developed alongside the film. Orson Scott Card wrote three chapters for the hypothetical backstories of Coffey, Bud and Lindsey. When Cameron saw these, he gave them to the actors to help them develop the characters. Lindsey's reason for being hard on people is that she grew up the youngest in a family with five brothers - and had to fight to be noticed. The biographies of Coffey, Bud and Lindsey are the first three chapters of Card's Novelization.
    • The aliens themselves have a name: They refer to themselves as the Builders of Memory. Information gathering, archiving and peaceful colonization of habitable oceans are their primary goals - but do not make them angry.
    • The aliens are revealed to be responsible for Jammer and Lindsey recovering, as well as giving Catfish the stamina to swim the last leg of the trip to rescue Bud.
  • All There in the Script: One Night's full name is Lisa "One Night" Standing.
  • Almost Out of Oxygen: Right after they disarm the bomb.
  • Artistic License – Military: Both variations of Trident missile only carried a complement of 100kt yield warheads (Coffey stated 50kt). Physical size of the package was fudged a little, and weight was fudged a lot.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Bud and Lindsey Brigman, who are on the brink of divorce at the beginning but have a long-distance heart-to-heart while he's a mile down in the trench.
  • Back from the Dead: Lindsey Brigman, who deliberately drowns so her husband can use the diving suit to get back. Hooray for the Mammalian Diving Reflex!
  • Bait-and-Switch: Coffey pins Lindsey up against a wall, and says "This is something I've wanted to do since we first met." Then we hear two ripping noises … and he produces a piece of tape, which he sticks over her mouth. (The trivia subtitle track on the DVD release pops up with "What did you think was going to happen in a PG-13 movie?" just after this happens.)
  • The Big Board: The transparent variant, onboard the U.S.S. Montana.
  • Big Damn Heroes: When Coffee is about to strangle Bud, Catfish appears out of nowhere to save the day.
  • Big Damn Kiss: Between Bud and Lindsey at the end.
  • Big "NO!":
    • Bud, after Lindsey drowns. She gets better.
    • Earlier in the film, after the crane accident and the damage to Deep Core, as the crew tries to escape the flooding modules, one of them gets trapped in a sealed-off module behind Bud. They beat on the hatch for about 30 seconds, then stop, signifying that they drowned. Bud cries out no there as well, but his mourning time is limited as that module immediately starts flooding as well.
  • Bitch Alert: Lindsey, coming complete with a character introducing her as "the Queen Bitch of the Universe" and another character making a gagging gesture when Lindsey's put on the radio. Of course this merely sets her up as a Defrosting Ice Queen who's shown in a more complicated light and ultimately proves the introduction wrong.
  • Bowdlerise: The scene of Monk demonstrating how the perflurocarbon works using Hippy's pet rat was censored in the UK due to the BBFC's rules about depicting animal cruelty. The shots of the rat submerged in the fluid were removed and the scene focuses on the close-ups of Monk and Hippy's faces reacting to what's happening.
  • Breathable Liquid: The divers breathe perfluorocarbon to help with the pressure, in one scene the crew actually immersed a rat in the liquid.
  • Brick Joke: Early on, Bud calls Lindsey a "cast-iron bitch". When he's doing his suicide dive, well...
    Lindsey: It's not easy being a cast-iron bitch. It takes discipline, and years of training... A lot of people don't appreciate that.
  • Cassandra Truth:
    • Lindsey spends the first half of the film trying to convince the crew that there's something not human in the trench. Nobody believes her until they see a giant Russian water tentacle in front of their faces.
    • As Bud reaches near the bottom of the trench, he types there's light everywhere. Monk comments that he must be having serious hallucinations due to the depth. Nope. Just an alien city.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Bud's wedding ring, the explanation of High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, the liquid breathing system.
  • Chekhov's Skill: "They used to call me 'The Hammer'."
  • Clothing Damage: Coffey's shirt suffers from it.
  • Complete-the-Quote Title: The movie title come from a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche shown in the opening scene in the Special Edition. The theatrical release removed it because another movie used it before them.
  • CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable: Well, kind of - it isn't clean, and not all that pretty either. It isn't even reliable: the novel explains that the aliens are the ones who save Lindsey because of Bud's impassioned pleas for her to live.
  • Crowd Panic: When the giant tidal wave threatens the city, the people at the beach flee in terror.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Coffey is killed when the immense pressure of the trench causes his damaged submersible to implode.
  • Delayed Reaction: When Catfish sees the fluid water creature in the room, it takes him a second to realize what he just saw.
  • Dirty Communists: The setup for the plot was for an American salvage team to recover a sunken American nuclear submarine before the Soviets did. The Director's Cut expands on the Cold War subplot, with the salvage efforts being likened to a second Cuban Missile Crisis due to the wreck's close proximity to Cuba.
  • Distress Call: The divers are responding to a crashed nuclear sub.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": Bud's real first name is Virgil. Inverted at the end when he allows himself to be called that. Lindsey also asks the SEALs not to call her Mrs. Brigman, prompting Coffey to snidely ask whether they should just call her "sir." However, this is inverted at the end.
    Lindsey: Hi, Brigman.
    Bud: Hi, Mrs. Brigman.
  • Dramatic Alien VTOL: The dramatic scene where the entire alien mothership lifts to the surface of the ocean taking Deep Core with it to save the remainder of the crew.
  • Dramatic Space Drifting: An underwater version where corpses are floating inside the wreckage of the sunken U.S.S. Montana.
  • Dropped in the Toilet: Bud, in a moment of temporary spite about his ex-wife coming to his underwater rig, tosses his wedding ring inside of the chemical toilet he just vacated, but instantly regrets it and fishes it back and puts it back on. This decision ends up saving his life later on when his hand is trapped on a closing hatch and the ring stops the hatch from crushing it.
  • Drowning Pit: Several scenes. First three of Bud's team mates die when their quarters are flooded. Then he himself narrowly avoids drowning in a corridor. And lastly, when Bud and Lindsey's minisub starts leaking and Lindsey gets the idea to allow herself to drown on the remote chance she could be towed back to Deep Core and resuscitated.
  • Eldritch Ocean Abyss: The film's about a United States SEAL team trying to salvage a destroyed nuclear submarine in the deep ocean, but underwater aliens are watching them...
  • Empty Quiver: The setup is an attempt to decommission a lost nuclear sub. You just know something bad's gonna happen with that nuke on board.
  • Epigraph: The movie opening on a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche "...when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you."
  • Explosive Instrumentation: When the nuclear submarine crashes into the wall of the underwater canyon, fires break out in the control room instrument panels.
  • Face Death with Dignity: After Bud defuses the nuke, he only has 5 minutes of oxygen left (when just getting down there took 30 minutes). He types out his last messages to Lindsey, telling her that he knew the trip would be one-way only, asking her not to cry, and telling her he loves her. Then he calmly waits on the ledge for his oxygen to run out. Fortunately, the aliens come to his rescue.
  • Feet-First Introduction: Lindsey's legs amongst the crew that leave the helicopter.
  • Floating Water: The water tentacle.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • "They used to call this 'The Hammer'." Think Catfish will use The Hammer to deck someone later at a key moment?
    • Monk is the only SEAL to not be afraid and even enthused at seeing the alien probe.
  • Futile Hand Reach: Despite their antagonism Lindsey and Coffey both instinctively place their hands on the windshields of their subs just before his sub is destroyed with him still inside.
  • Get A Hold Of Yourself Man. Lindsey is a little high-strung, which Bud has to remind her.
    Bud: Look, he's operating on his own. He's cut off from his chain of command, he's showing signs of pressure-induced psychosis and he's got a nuclear weapon. So as a personal favor to me, will you try to put your tongue in neutral for a while?
  • Giant Wall of Watery Doom: In the director's cut, aliens threaten to annihilate humanity with mile-high tidal waves rearing up on every coast. Instead, it turns into a harmless demonstration of the aliens' power when they stop the waves just short of breaking over the coast. And when the Deep Core is damaged, one of these hits the barracks module, killing Finler, Perry, Mc Whorter and Dietz. Also, one of these gushes through the nuclear sub at the beginning.
  • Hand Wave: The only explanation the movie gives for why the crew isn't dead of decompression barotrauma at the end is that the aliens must have done something to prevent it. It is explicitly stated in the novelization, in addition to being the reason for Bud Brigman actually being alive and functioning by the time he gets down to the nuke, and for Lindsey's recovery from drowning.
  • Harmless Freezing: A realistic application of this trope - Lindsey isn't actually frozen, just very cold, in order to slow her body functions.
  • Helpless Window Death: When the disaster occurs, Bud tries to tell the men trapped inside a flooding room to cut a hose so they can open a door. They don't and swiftly drown as Bud watches them through a glass window in the door.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Bud figured he wouldn't have enough oxygen to get back after defusing the bomb. He went anyway.
    • Lindsey allows herself to drown so Bud can get both of them back to the rig.
  • "Hey, You!" Haymaker: Cat delivers a devastating one to Coffey who thrown into the water by the sheer force of it and immediately retreats rather than dare to take Cat on in a fair fight.
  • Hint Dropping: While Bud is diving down into the trench.
    One Night: Keep talking, Lindsey, let him hear your voice.
    Lindsey: Okay, Bud, your depth is 8900 feet, you're doing fine—
    One Night: No, Lindsey. Talk to him.
  • Hiroshima as a Unit of Measure: Invoked when Lindsey asks Coffey how powerful the nuclear warheads are.
    Coffey: The M.I.R.V. is a tactical nuke. Uh, fifty kilotons, nominal yield, say... five times Hiroshima.
  • Hot Sub-on-Sub Action: The minisubs involved aren't fighting with weapons — they're fighting over a weapon.
  • How Dare You Die on Me!:
    • When CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable goes from partial aversion, to full-on enforced to the point of Worst Aid, Please Wake Up meets Cluster F-Bomb.
      Bud: No! No, she has a strong heart! She wants to LIVE! C'mon, Linds! C'mon baby! Zap her again! Do it!... Do it!... Come on baby, come on baby!... Come on, breathe baby. Goddamn it, BREATHE! ''Goddamn it, you bitch, you never backed away from a thing in your life! Now fight! FIGHT! FFFFIIIIIIIGHT!!
    • And the situation is inverted later when Bud is resigned to a Heroic Sacrifice after disarming the nuke. This time, with Lindsey begging him not to go through with it.
  • Humanity on Trial: The aliens consider washing humanity away for all its warmongering and cruelty. They even raise huge tsunami waves all around the globe and held them erect for a while just to make their point perfectly clear, but changed their minds when Bud willingly sacrificed himself on a One-Way Trip to the depths in order to save the aliens from a nuclear warhead sent down by an Ax-Crazy U.S. Navy SEAL. (It's debatable whether the nuke would have hurt them, but still...) They even save Bud's life as a "thank you".
  • Humans Are Bastards: Played with in the novel, as the Builders realize that their own practice of "remembering" and then destroying aberrant individuals is exactly the kind of behavior they have come to abhor in humans.
  • Hypocrite: Lindsey tells the Navy SEALs to watch for signs of High Pressure Nervous Syndrome and yet continually jerks Coffey's chain when he's clearly showing signs of it. It's only when the rig crew are at gunpoint, that she tries to be diplomatic, but by this point, he's completely flipped.
  • I Come in Peace: The scene where Bud is confronted by the aliens behind a water curtain:
    Bud Brigman: Howdy. Uh... How are you guys doin'?
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Coffey's explanation to Bud as to why the SEALs stole the sub: they were Just Following Orders.
  • Idiot Ball: Let the mining team disconnect the cable connecting them to the surface so it neither yanks them off the cliff edge or snaps loose to fall on them? Nah! Take the Idiot Ball and head to the submarine to retrieve a nuclear weapon because evidently, decommissioning a nuclear submarine is much more important than being alive to do it! Of course, Coffey is already starting to mentally deteriorate at this point, and isn't thinking clearly - he's probably focusing entirely on his orders, regardless of how much sense it makes to continue following them at this point.
  • In Space, Everyone Can See Your Face: The masks were specially designed to show the actors' faces.
  • It Works Better with Bullets: As Lt. Coffey finds out when he tries to blow Bud's head off with his service pistol; Ensign Monk had removed the magazine. Presumably a SEAL should be able to tell the difference in weight between a loaded and unloaded weapon, but Coffey isn't all that mentally stable at that point.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Lindsey hangs a lampshade on the entire crew getting to the surface without decompressing, presumably to let the audience guess the aliens did it. In the book, it's confirmed that the aliens were responsible.
  • Late to the Tragedy: The more paranoid crew members believe the "visitors" are responsible for crashing the sub.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: Catfish boasts on that he's an experienced hand-to-hand fighter -They used to call me 'The Hammer'-, but he's quite chubby, and can't keep up with Bud when they try to reach the villain by swimming. However, when Bud gets in a tight situation later, Cat arrives just in time, and knocks the villain out with one punch.
  • Magical Defibrillator: Justified in that the device in question is an early-80's model without a quick-look ECG function.
  • Making a Splash: The aliens in the film have the ability to control water, up to producing megatsunamis.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Bud explains that he and Lindsey only married to get better sleeping quarters on one of their projects.
  • Monumental Damage: Subverted. In the special edition we see giant tidal waves about to wipe out the Golden Gate Bridge, Lady Liberty, and a few others but then it stops.
  • Mouth Taped Shut: Throughout the film, Lindsey Brigman and Navy SEAL Lieutenant Coffey have been arguing and verbally sniping at each other. Finally, when it's revealed that the SEALS are planning to detonate a nuclear weapon to destroy a disabled U.S. submarine (which will kill everyone on Deep Core One), Coffey takes over and threatens Brigman's team. Coffey tells Brigman "This is something I've wanted to do since we first met.", indicating that he's going to kill her, but instead he pulls off a strip of tape and puts it over her mouth to shut her up.
  • Near-Death Clairvoyance: The CPR scene was meant to invoke an out-of-body experience.
  • Nipple and Dimed: The film is rated PG-13 even though Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's breasts are visible during the CPR scene. Possibly because the context of the scene is not at all sexual or erotic. It even counts as Shown Their Work, since you can't use a defibrillator through clothing.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Lampshaded when the "aliens" return everyone to the surface with no pause for decompression. "We should be dead!"
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Bizarrely, this is half the moral of the book, and it's the moral the aliens learn from it all. They realize that they're actually just as bad as the humans, and need to grow up just as much as the humans do.
  • Nuke 'em: Paranoid delusions + Access to nukes = BAD THING.
  • Ocean Madness: High Pressure Nervous Syndrome. It turns Coffey into a paranoid lunatic, and another soldier is on his way, but he gets better as soon as they reach the surface.
  • Oh, Crap!: The entire crew's reaction when the crane falls into the trench, and watching the tether slowly following - with the rig still attached. And the reaction of Coffey, Lindsey, and Bud when Coffey's mini-sub tumbles down the trench. Lindsey and Coffey even reflexively reach out to each other, a failed Take My Hand! moment that shows that, as far gone as Coffey is at that point, he's still human, and that Lindsey would help him if she could.
  • Ominous Crack: Coffey's fate is sealed when a first crack appears on the windshield of his minisub.
  • One-Way Trip: Bud's decision to go disarm the nuke. Subverted in that the aliens intervene to let him live.
  • Please, Don't Leave Me: After they've reconciled, Lindsey pleads with Bud not to "leave [her] here all alone now" as he struggles against increasing water pressure during his dive to find the wayward nuke.
  • Primal Fear: The final act of the movie is chock full of it, and Bud goes through all of this, and we feel it and fear for him; hydrophobia aside, there's the deep dark abyss itself, the notion of falling further down away from the surface and human civilization, and the loneliness that he's experiencing with only Lindsey's voice on the radio to give him any comfort.
  • Puny Earthlings: Humans are depicted as technologically and morally inferior to the unnamed aliens in the Trough can control water with remarkable precision, and appear to have psychic powers of a sort.
  • Ramming Always Works: Lindsey's mini-sub battle with Coffey, ending when she hits him hard enough and shorts out his engine, causing him to plummet over the edge of the trench.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: The scene where the rat is immersed in a breathable liquid isn't a special effect - the rat really is breathing liquid fluorocarbon emulsion. (Not in the UK release, however). The same technology is used in modern medicine, to treat extremely premature babies whose lungs aren't developed enough to handle breathing air. In real life, these liquids not only don't remove enough CO2 from the lungs, the liquid is so much heavier than air that the lungs can barely move it in and out, the effort of which, of course, builds up more CO2.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Cameron was going through a rather messy divorce while writing this movie. Many critics questioned how much this influenced the Brigman estrangement subplot.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: A rare non-verbal example is given to Bud by the aliens in a slide show of all of humanity's famous atrocities.
  • Re-Cut: But not because of Executive Meddling; James Cameron cut out almost a half-hour of footage himself because he felt at the time that it didn't work correctly; ironically, Cameron said that when he told the suits this, they were the ones who didn't like the change. There were also issues with the cut CGI that later technology allowed him to go back and fix, leading to the release of a "Special Edition".
  • Relationship-Salvaging Disaster: Bud and Lindsey are estranged at the start of the film. Getting caught in the deep sea rig together results in them falling in love again.
  • Resurrection Gambit: When Bud and Lindsey are trapped in a flooding chamber with only one air supply, the only plan they can think of is to let Lindsey drown so that she can be dragged back to safety and resuscitated, counting on the extreme frigidity of the water to prevent brain damage for an adequate amount of time. It barely works.
  • Rousseau Was Right: The aliens initially wanted to wipe out humanity since they thought Humans Are the Real Monsters. However, they change their minds when they witness Bud's Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Screen Shake: As the hurricane starts hitting the Explorer topside, the bridge crew is seen moving with the waves, the camera lurching - but all of the hanging coats, desk debris, and coffee supplies are rock steady.
  • Semper Fi: Retired Marine beats Navy SEAL.
  • Send in the Search Team: The main cast is sent to search a sunken submarine.
  • Sensory Tentacles: A tentacle-like construct made of animated water makes initial contact with the human explorers.
  • Sensor Suspense: In the opening scene a U.S. Navy submarine is tracking an unknown underwater object by sonar. The sonar blip is projected on a screen, showing the object maneuvering near the sub.
  • Shout-Out: The opening scene with the sub is one big shout out to Das Boot.
  • Shown Their Work: Cameron manages to work in obscure (but real) things like High Pressure Nervous Syndrome and the Mammalian Diving Reflex into the plot.
  • Someone Has to Die: Bud and Lindsey are trapped underwater with one set of breathing equipment, which Bud is already wearing. Bud offers the gear to Lindsey, which would doom him. Lindsey presents what she calls "the logical option", which gives both of them a chance of survival: she drowns, and Bud drags her body to safety, and hopes she can be revived. Bud is the stronger swimmer, so Lindsey has to drown. Bud's initial response is "Fuck logic!", but he soon comes round.
  • Space Suits Are SCUBA Gear: Inverted. Bud's deep diving suit resembles an armored space suit.
  • Tears of Joy: Lindsey wipes them off of Bud's face after her coming Back from the Dead.
  • Trapped in Containment: When the rig is flooding.
  • Underwater Base: The drilling rig.
  • Unwanted Assistance: When Lindsey is trying to get the rest of the crew to believe her about the underwater aliens, resident conspiracy nut Hippy goes into his usual Conspiracy Kitchen Sink speech. This results in a zinger:
    "Hippy, do me a favor? Stay off my side."
  • Was Just Leaving: Bud defuses the heated situation when Lindsey is confronting Coffey about the nuclear warhead by mentioning that she was just about to leave.
  • Wedding Ring Removal: Following an argument with his estranged wife Lindsey, Bud tosses his titanium wedding ring down a toilet. He quickly runs back into the head and fishes it back out. It would later save his life when a bulkhead closes on it, allowing him to escape one of the flooding compartments of Deep Core after the crane crashed on the rig.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • What happened to that poor crane operator? The book explicitly states that he died.
    • The pet rat, who people will definitely worry about (including the British Board Of Film Classification - the shots of the rat in the breathing fluid were cut from the UK release). The American cut reveals that the actual rat was unharmed. When the actors were doing press for the movie, there were actually requests to bring the rat along because the scene made such an impact - the fact that the rat had died of natural causes after filming wrapped but before release led to some awkward questions, according to Hippy's actor Todd Graff.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: You could easily throw a massive one of these at the Starfish Aliens, as they decided it was the best way to send their peaceful message to humanity to grow up and stop trying to kill each other by threatening to hurl worldwide giant tsunamis at them. Perhaps justified by the fact that the humans, in their bickering, had tried to attack them. Further justified with the tsunami being a demonstration of their power - it's easier to show that humanity would be totally outclassed if they tried to start something with the aliens. "We want to live in peace - bear in mind what we can do if you force us into defending ourselves..." Then again, this entire situation is happening because the aliens accidentally crashed a nuclear submarine and killed 159 people... While trying to prevent a nuclear exchange.
  • Wire Dilemma: Bud is told to cut the blue wire with the white stripe, and not to touch the black wire with the yellow stripe. This piece of information turns out unhelpful due to his yellow-green chemical light making both look identical, so he just has to guess. This is also a bit of Artistic License – Engineering, as the whole point of striping one and only one wire out of a pair is to make them distinguishable even under coloured lighting.
  • A Wizard Did It: The ending, more or less.
  • You Are Not Alone: Lindsey and the crew to Bud Brigman, during his deep suit dive.
  • You Had Us Worried There: Two of them in particular: Those pants-crapping tense seconds when Bud is cutting the wire, and when Bud resumes communication with the crew after meeting the aliens.