[box cover]

The Abyss: Special Edition

Fox Home Video

Starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio,
and Michael Biehn

Written and directed by James Cameron

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Review by Robert Wederquist                    

Tired of waiting around for your favorite movies to arrive on DVD? For fans of James Cameron's 1989 The Abyss, the wait seemed almost interminable.

When Fox first entered the DVD market in August of 1998, one of the very first discs they announced was The Abyss. However, it was only a matter of weeks before the flick was dumped from the release schedule, and only in late 1999 that an Abyss DVD began to take shape. But even then, there was some confusion as to if it would be the original theatrical cut from 1989, the "Director's Cut" from 1993 (a VHS/Laserdisc release that confirmed the film's status as one of the best in the action/sci-fi genre), or if both films would be included in the one release, which would be a substantial undertaking.

Thankfully, with the arrival of The Abyss: Special Edition on DVD in March of 2000, fans of the film can be reassured that that everything worked out for the best. This isn't just a great white-knuckle underwater ride, it's one of the most comprehensive DVDs to ever hit the street.

Cameron's story (based on his own original treatment), concerns a team of deep-sea oil drillers who are enlisted by the U.S. Navy to recover a sunken submarine because they are the only folks who have equipment that can go that deep. However, once the team starts digging around the ocean floor, they discover that there are forces in the depths who may be friendly or hostile, but are definitely alien, creating a stormy conflict between the blue-collar drillers and the Navy SEALs who watch over them.

While it may include some of the best and worst of James Cameron-style filmmaking (the story, especially in the Director's Cut, is a tad overlong), the many action sequences in The Abyss are first-rate and especially impressive as they largely take place underwater. The initial collapse of the drilling rig — which gets the film underway in classic disaster-flick style — is handled masterfully, and while Cameron isn't exactly known to be an actor's director, the scene where Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are stranded in a mini-sub with only one oxygen tank is panic-inducing, infused with a dramatic urgency that is impossible to forget. Despite the ambitious, difficult production (various reports indicate that there were numerous rifts between Cameron and his stars due to the harsh filming conditions), all of the performances are excellent, in particular Harris, who has become more of a supporting or ensemble player in recent years, making The Abyss one of his few leading roles. Cameron-regular Michael Biehn, as paranoid, unstable SEAL Lt. Coffey, is a convincing bad-guy, more overtaken by inflexible training and pressure-sickness than actual malice, and no-nonsense control-freak Mastrantonio takes on a difficult role without losing audience sympathy.

But the reason why The Abyss has become a lauded classic of its genre is not just the performances, but the spectacle of it all. Cameron, despite directing a handful of films before this one, has always been a "bigger is better" director, seemingly more fascinated with machines, vehicles, technology, and spectacle than such things as dialogue or narrative development (aspects that made Titanic a crushing disappointment). But with a solid narrative thread backing The Abyss, the vast drilling operation— with its underwater base, mini-subs, and unmanned rovers — is one of the most original milieus ever fashioned for an action film. Cameron sees little difference between the depths of the ocean and the farthest reaches of space, bathed in darkness and only illuminated by the floodlights of man-made ships adrift in an alien cosmos.

For fans of The Abyss, Fox's two-disc DVD is a prized possession, as it arguably has more supplements on board than any other DVD released to date (only Criterion's Brazil seems to pack more punch). In addition to both versions of the film on Disc One, there are extensive cast-and-crew notes and a running commentary of behind-the-scenes details on a subtitle track. And as if having both versions of the film on a single disc isn't enough for most folks, Disc Two of The Abyss: SE is loaded to the rafters with so much stuff that it takes days to dig through it. The menu design, reminiscent of Fox's Alien disc, starts in the Sub Bay, as it does on Disc One. However, the centerpiece here is the hour-long documentary Under Pressure: The Making of The Abyss, which chronicles the struggle to get the film made. There's plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, and the many conflicts between Cameron and his actors are hinted at, if not openly discussed. A 10-minute featurette is also included. Three Abyss trailers are available in a trailer gallery, and keep your eyes open for some Easter eggs in there. Meanwhile, an "Imaging Station" is full of enough stuff to keep you occupied literally for hours, including the entire shooting script, Cameron's original 1987 treatment for the film, all 773 (!) storyboards used for the film shown in sequence, 10 short documentaries on various vehicles and special-effects, and 16 photo galleries (more Easter eggs are in here as well). Also included on Disc Two is a textual recounting of the making of The Abyss, broken into 28 chapters.

If Disc Two seems a little daunting, there are a few ways that the information is broken up. The most obvious way to navigate the disc is by starting in the Sub Bay and just exploring the different rooms. However, by entering the "Drill Room," the user can navigate the entire disc sequentially, using the textual "making-of" supplement as a guide, which is interspersed with the rest of the disc's supplements. However, if you select the "Operations" feature (in the "Moon Pool"), you can just read the textual supplement, or by visiting "Mission Components" (also in the "Moon Pool"), you are presented with a nifty map that extends from the surface of the ocean to the bottom of the abyss, with all of the vehicles, technical oddities, and extraterrestrials at their recorded depths in the movie. Tap on these and you will be guided through brief multimedia sequences, some of which include multi-angle content.

The only disappointment in this package is the lack of a commentary track on Disc One, as fans of the film (and filmmaking in general) would doubtless love to hear from the director, cast, and crew, rather than just read some behind-the-scenes notes as subtitles. But it's easy to be overwhelmed by all of the extra content on The Abyss: SE, and it should be noted that the quality of the film's presentation is very good. Since seamless branching is employed, both cuts of the film are uniformly excellent, and while the disc does not include an anamorphic transfer, it looks stunning on our standard 1.33 Trinitron, with rich colors and no detectable artifacts. Audio is in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (recast from the original Dolby Surround with a single monaural rear channel), and it will put your sound system through its paces.

Finally, while The Abyss: SE comes at a premium price (about $35 SRP, $30 on the street), it's good value for the money. There are plenty of $30 DVDs out there with extra supplements, but this release is so packed with the goods that we wouldn't have been surprised if Fox priced it much higher. As it is, The Abyss: SE is a steal.

— Robert Wederquist

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