I had never seen writer/director James Cameron’s THE ABYSS ($35) until the Special Edition of the film was released on Laserdisc. The reviews I read about the original theatrical version were less than overwhelming, so I thought that THE ABYSS was just another in a series of soggy, underwater science fiction movies released by Hollywood in 1989 (the others notables being LEVIATHAN and DEEPSTAR SIX). However, when I finally sat down to watch the Special Edition of THE ABYSS, I was more than impressed with what turned out to be a highly entertaining science fiction thriller that featured a deeply moving performance from its star Ed Harris. In fact, I found the Special Edition of THE ABYSS to be such a good movie that it became impossible for me to ever consider watching the theatrical version, which lacks the 28 minutes worth of story, character development and special effects that made Cameron’s definitive version what it is.
The plot of THE ABYSS concerns an experimental underwater drilling platform known as Deepcore, which is pressed into service by the Navy after a nuclear submarine goes down in nearby waters. Ed Harris portrays Virgil "Bud" Brigman, the man in charge of Deepcore’s day-to-day operations, who is less than thrilled to have his untrained people participate in a rescue mission, as well as having the drilling rig invaded by Navy SEALs and his estranged wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). The situation on the rig becomes tense from the second that the SEALs arrive when their leader Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn) begins to clash with every member of the drilling team. However, when the drilling rig is moved to the position where the nuclear submarine went down, near the edge of a two-mile deep abyssal trench in the ocean floor, thing start to get strange. Lindsey sees a strange luminescent creature come up out of the trench that makes her to think that there may be a non-terrestrial intelligence living at the bottom of the abyss.
Unfortunately, Lindsey’s sighting and the pressure of the situation only serve to intensify Lt. Coffey’s basic military paranoia. The situation begins to spin out of control when Coffey’s precarious mental state causes him to take extreme action against the drilling team and whatever intelligence that lies in the abyss. The cast of THE ABYSS also features Leo Burmester, Todd Graff, John Bedford Lloyd, J.C. Quinn, Kimberly Scott, Capt. Kidd Brewer Jr., George Robert Klek, Christopher Murphy, Adam Nelson, Richard Warlock, Jimmie Ray Weeks, J. Kenneth Campbell, Ken Jenkins and Chris Elliott.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has produced a two disc Special Edition release of THE ABYSS that is truly special, yet somewhat disappointing. The most serious flaw in what is an otherwise superb DVD release is the fact that the wide screen presentation of THE ABYSS does not feature the anamorphic enhancement for playback on 16:9 displays. Sure, THE ABYSS looks really great on a 4:3 display right now, but in a couple of years, a whole lot of people are going to less than thrilled when the image has to be digitally blown up to fit the dimensions of their brand new wide screen television.
This THX certified edition of THE ABYSS looks better on DVD than it ever did on Laserdisc, even though both releases would appear to have been mastered from the same wide screen transfer. THE ABYSS is framed at 2.35:1, as in keeping with the theatrical prints of both the original theatrical version and the 1993 Special Edition re-release of the film. Thanks to the seamless branching capabilities of the DVD format, fans are offered a choice of watching either the original theatrical release or Special Edition versions of THE ABYSS off the same dual layered DVD. Since both presentations are derived from the same transfer, with the theatrical version skipping the extra footage contained in the Special Edition, image quality is identical.
For the most part, THE ABYSS delivers a sharp, clean picture with a good level of detail. A brand new transfer would have eked more detail out of the film elements; especially if the DVD were anamorphic enhanced and down converted from a high definition master. Sequences photographed in the cool blue lighting that has become a James Cameron trademark certainly look best. Sequences in warmer, more natural lighting are a bit less detailed and for some reason are a hair less appealing. Colors are not over-saturated and there no problems with chroma noise or bleeding of the stronger hues. Additionally, flesh tones are rendered naturally under normal lighting; otherwise they take on the bluish cast of Cameron’s favorite lighting design. Blacks are perfect and the image displays good shadow detail and very smooth contrast. Despite the fact that the Special Edition version of THE ABYSS runs 171 minutes, the authoring of this DVD is absolutely first rate, which totally eliminates all noticeable signs of digital compression artifacts.
THE ABYSS features an engrossing Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtrack that really enhances the presentation of the movie. There is excellent channel separation across the forward soundstage, with plenty of opportunities for sound effects to take advantage of the Dolby Digital encoding. The surround channels are very active throughout, although I could not pinpoint any actual split surround sound effects. THE ABYSS also features one of my favorite Alan Silvestri musical scores, which sounds totally marvelous on this DVD. Dialogue reproduction is excellent with all the actor’s voice remaining clear and intelligible, despite that the mix is awash in other sounds. Bass reproduction is full and authoritative, delivering the required kick to the film’s key sequences. A Dolby Surround soundtrack is also encoded onto the DVD, as are English and Spanish subtitles.
THE ABYSS sports very cool interactive menus that feature sound and utilize 3D animation as part of the navigation system. A similar theme runs through the animated menus on disc one and disc two, although the structure is geared to the different features contained on each disc. Disc one contains the movie, so its menus provide access to the standard set up features, as well as scene selection with full motion preview. A text only commentary is available on disc one, which gives background information one the production. Also contained on disc one are the DVD-ROM supplements that allow one to view the movie with the film’s screenplay or storyboards on display.
Disc two offers the bulk of the set’s incredibly extensive supplemental features. Topping the list is the 59-minute documentary, Under Pressure: Making The Abyss. The documentary is examines the production in great detail and shows the problems that the filmmakers and cast faced on one of the most difficult shoots in motion picture history. A 10 featurette is also included on the DVD, but it barely scratches the surface in comparison to the longer documentary. Also falling within the traditional realm of supplements are three theatrical trailers. Additionally, the multi angel feature is utilized to show the evolution of the film’s groundbreaking pseudopod sequence from storyboard to final film version. Delving deeper into the DVD’s supplements on disc two, one finds that they become more text and still image intensive. In this area, you can read James Cameron’s complete screenplay or examine all 773 storyboards that were created for the movie. There is so much material on the supplemental disc that one could spend days examining it all, so it would be impossible to list everything in this review. Sufficient to say the disc two offers everything you ever wanted to know about THE ABYSS… but were afraid to ask.
Had THE ABYSS included a new 16:9 enhanced presentation, this two-disc set really could have been a contender for the best DVD release ever produced. Even without the enhancement, this DVD is a worthwhile acquisition for anyone looking for something to tide them over until the high definition version of THE ABYSS comes home.
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