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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 3/14/00
updated: 5/25/00

The Abyss
Special Edition - 1989/1993 (2000) - 20th Century Fox

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits


The Abyss: Special Edition Film Ratings (Theatrical/Special Edition): C+/B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A/A

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Films
145 mins (theatrical version)/171mins (special edition), PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), THX-certified, 2 dual-layered discs, dual-disc Amaray keep case packaging , single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (theatrical version layer switch at 1:05:04, at the start of chapter 26 - special edition layer switch at 1:22:21, at the start of chapter 29), full-length text commentaries for each film version (via subtitle track), cast and crew bios, production notes, DVD-ROM features (including the ability to access the screenplay and storyboards while watching the film), animated film-themed menu screens with sound and music, scene access (theatrical version has 44 chapters, special edition has 52 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0 Surround), subtitles: English, Spanish and English commentary, Closed Captioned

Editor's Note: An alternate Region 1 version of this disc exists with audio in only English and French (DD 2.0 Surround). See the end of this review for details.

Disc Two: Special Edition Content
Single sided, dual-layered, 6 trailers (3 for The Abyss and 1 each for Aliens, Strange Days and True Lies), "behind-the-scenes" featurette (10 mins), Under Pressure: Making The Abyss documentary (59 mins), complete story treatment and complete special edition screenplay, all 773 original storyboards, cast and crew bios, gallery of production photographs and artwork, "making of" featurettes including: motion control timelapse, miniature rear-projection, deepcore timelapse, videomatics montage, Montana bridge flooding, engine room flooding, surface shoot montage, crane crash shoot, visual effects reel and pseudopod multi-angle (which allows you to select from up to 4 different angles which show the storyboards, 2 camera angles and the final sequence), The Abyss: In Depth (extensive production notes including 28 chapters of text on the writer/director and screenplay, the production team, the design team, the storyboarding process, character development and casting, costume design, training for the production, filming underwater, ROVs and video in The Abyss, a production chronology, the wave, Benthic Explorer, Cab Three, Deepcore2, Cab One, Pseudopod, Flatbed, Little Geek, U.S.S. Montana, NTI Scout, NTI Manta, Deep Suit, NTI Being, Big Geek, NTI Ark, editing, sound and music, publicity advertising and marketing, the restoration, closing commentary and acknowledgments and credits), DVD-ROM features (including 3 interactive games: Sonar Spy, Valve Control and ROV Pilot)

"…when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." - Friedrich Nietzsche

Before I begin, left me just say that this is one of the most feature-packed DVD special editions yet released. Going through everything on these 2 discs takes literally days - I'm not kidding. Van Ling and the folks at Lightstorm and Fox deserve a LOT of credit for this impressive set. I do have some problems with the presentation, but this DVD release (along with Buena Vista and Pixar's A Bug's Life: Collector's Edition) definitely sets a new benchmark in terms of quantity and quality of special edition content. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start back at the beginning…

James Cameron's The Abyss tells the story of a deep sea oil team (led by Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Masterantonio) that's testing a new submerged drilling platform called Deepcore. Things are going along just swimmingly (pardon the pun), when the crew suddenly receives word that the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Montana has gone down near their position, at the edge of 2-mile deep abyss in the sea floor. The Navy has requested that the Deepcore crew help in the rescue, and sends down a team of specially trained SEALs (including Cameron favorite Michael Biehn) to lead the effort. But they soon discover that no one survived to be rescued, and (unknown to the Deepcore staff) the Navy's plans quickly shift toward scuttling the subwreck to prevent its payload of nukes from falling into Russian hands. Oh - and they plan to do this by blowing it up with one of the warheads (gulp!).

In the meantime, up on the surface, things are heating up between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, adding urgency to the situation underwater. To make matters worse, a hurricane whips up and cuts Deepcore off from its surface support ships, and the SEALs from their superiors. Not enough tension for you? Well, lots of things start going wrong aboard Deepcore, including the fact that the SEAL commander is suffering from a deep-diving compression syndrome that's slowly driving him mad (and he controls the nuke). And a strange and unearthly force of some sort, hidden in the depths of the abyss, starts making appearances at the most inopportune moments. Where is all this going? Well, in the original 1989 theatrical version at least, it comes grinding to a strange and mostly unsatisfying conclusion, which doesn't seem to deserve the gripping and intense drama that leads up to it. If you removed the ending from say… Aliens or T2, and tacked on the ending of the Close Encounters: Special Edition instead (where we see Roy inside the mothership), you'll get the idea. The film takes a major left turn in the final reel and slams on the breaks hard. By the time you've picked yourself off the floor, you're left scratching your head in bewilderment.

But that's the theatrical version. In 1993, Cameron returned to his film, and restored some 28 minutes of footage - 28 minutes that make a world of difference. The restored scenes add tremendous depth to the backstory of the lead characters, and a needed measure of tension in the form of newscasts that reinforce the political drama unfolding on the surface between the two superpowers. All of that leads up to a longer and much more satisfying ending, which (finally) has a point… and a moral. It isn't enough to make The Abyss a truly great film, but it definitely gives the ride some badly needed payoff. And the ride makes this film worth a viewing all on its own.

There's no way around it - when James Cameron sets out to make a movie, he doesn't screw around. His recent Titanic was a massive undertaking, in which Cameron and crew actually dived to the real shipwreck deep in the North Atlantic and reconstructed more than half of the actual ship for filming in Mexico. But it wasn't the first time he'd gone to such lengths to capture a story on film. The Abyss set the standard for underwater filmmaking, shooting "real for real" so to speak. The entire set was actually submerged in 55 feet of water (7.5 million gallons) in a special tank made from the core of an abandoned (and incomplete) nuclear reactor. Special diving equipment was designed specifically for the film, including new hard-hat diving suits and real deep sea submersibles. And the entire cast and crew was trained to work underwater. The result is a thrilling "you-are-there" feel, and a seldom-achieved level of realism. That look of fear you see in the actors' eyes is often real, the on-set danger ever present. Add to that some fine acting by Ed, Mary Elizabeth and company, and you've got a pretty unique experience in film viewing.

So that's the film. I suppose it's only appropriate that the DVD also involved a massive porduction effort, and the result is pretty amazing. This 2-disc set includes so much content that trying to catalog it all is a project in itself. Let's start with Disc One, which contains the film - or should I say films? Thanks to the magic of seamless branching on DVD, you can watch both the original theatrical version of the film, and the 28-minute longer special edition, on one dual-layered disc. You simply choose which version you want at the start from the main menu, and away you go. All that branching worked just fine on my Sony 7700, although my player did choke on the layer switch for a good 3 or 4 seconds. The RSDL layer switch in the film occurs at the same spot, whichever version you choose (although the time position is different due to the differing film lengths).

There's no doubt that the video is very good looking. But as many have bemoaned, it's not anamorphic, and that is pretty disappointing. It's even more irritating, because in a blunder of titanic proportions (pardon another pun if you will), the DVD's keepcase packaging says that it IS anamorphic (it definitely isn't). This is such an amazing DVD set, that I'm guessing it will be a LONG time before Fox and Lightstorm decide to revisit the film on disc with an anamorphic transfer. And given the amazing visuals… well, I can't help but feel that an important opportunity has been lost. Still, as I said, the film looks very good. There's a hair of unwelcome edge-enhancement visible from time to time, giving the picture a slightly too crisp look occasionally. But that's the only minor flaw. The color and contrast exhibited here are fantastic. You get all the deep, dark blues and blacks that one would expect from underwater footage, and there's not a whisper of MPEG-2 digital compression artifacting to be found. The print is clean and in very good shape, resulting in a picture that's very easy on the eye. This is as good as non-anamorphic video gets, and it's definitely better than the film has ever looked at home before.

The audio is excellent, in full Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. The sound is well mixed and nicely immersive. Dialogue is clean and clear, spread across the front hemisphere. There's good ambiance created here, with the underwater locations providing plenty of opportunities for nifty rear channel and panning effects. English Dolby Surround is also included. Editor's Note: Be sure to read the update at the end of this review for more on the sound.

The extras are where this DVD edition really shines, and there are still a few things to talk about on Disc One. You get several pages of cast and crew biographies and production notes on various subjects, in a menu selection called Personnel Lockers. As you watch the film, you can choose to read along with a full-length text commentary in subtitle form. While I would have preferred a Cameron audio track, the text commentary works surprisingly well and delivers plenty of interesting production and background information. The commentary is the same on both versions, except that you get more of it in the special edition, with added text that explains the differences between the versions and why a particular scene was deleted or restored.

But that's not all - when you insert this disc into a PC DVD-ROM drive, you get a "PC Friendly" interface that allows you to watch the film while following along in the screenplay… AND looking at panels of storyboards - a very nice touch. The rest of the DVD-ROM material is the usual mixed bag of mostly throwaway stuff like weblinks, advertising for other Fox DVD products and the like. There are also a trio of simple interactive games you can play (if you insert Disc Two in your drive).

Thankfully, with the exception of the games on Disc Two, all the supplemental content is accessed on the Video side of the disc, meaning that you can experience everything on your TV with a standard DVD player. And you get a massive amount of material - quite literally days worth of content to peruse. You can choose to access it in one of two ways: either by just exploring randomly, or going straight to the Drilling Room area of the menu, which will take you through the many thousands of pages of material in linear fashion, like the chapters of a book.

You'll find an excellent hour-long documentary on the film, entitled Under Pressure: Making The Abyss, along with a shorter 10-minute featurette. Three theatrical trailers are available, as are ten video shorts showing various aspects of the production (one even allows you to use your DVD player's multi-angle feature). Both James Cameron's complete story treatment and screenplay are available - you simply page through the text with your player's remote. Also included are all 773 graphic storyboards prepared for the film, laid out in scene-by-scene order, along with a massive gallery of behind-the-scenes photographs and production artwork.

And there's a section called The Abyss: In Depth, which is basically a good book's worth of production notes laid out in text pages. This is split into two sections, one on the production effort and one on the equipment and technology seen and developed for the film. A "chapter" on Cameron and the screenplay, for example, contains exerts from the first draft of the script, along with notes on why something was changed in later drafts. You can also jump to the full script or the treatment from here. The section of The Abyss: In Depth on equipment and technology, on the other hand, shows you a map of the different "levels" of the action in the film, from the surface to the bottom of the abyss, and highlights different vehicles and objects at each level - Cab One for example (which is one of the mini-subs seen in the film). Clicking on one of these objects leads you to a whole text chapter on that particular object, complete with photos, drawings and more.

My problems with this set have to do with the presentation of all this content. While I do like the set's animated menus, the page-after-page approach to the text material (and even some of the still shots, storyboards and the like) all has a very boring, laserdisc-like feel. You know what I mean - the endless pages of white text on a blue background, the "click... click... click..." tedium of pressing that button on the remote again and again. I can't help but feel that all this material could have been presented in a manner that would be at once more imaginative, more user-friendly and more in tune with the strengths and capabilities of the DVD format. Why not have all that still-page content on the DVD-ROM side? Maybe a printable text file version of the script and treatment, for example? As it is, this feels like a straight laserdisc to DVD translation of the content, and it comes off as rather boring. That's not to say that these 2 discs aren't loaded with great content - they are. Bottom line - if you have ANY questions at all on some aspect of this film, the answers are on this disc somewhere… along with more information and material than you'll probably have the energy to go through. And that's the problem - the supplemental material presentation here is so boring at times that you're just not likely to ever want go through it all.

Still, there's really no denying the fact that Fox's The Abyss: Special Edition is probably the most complete DVD resource on a particular film yet produced. It's really an impressive piece of work, and fans of this film should be quite happy. The lack of anamorphic widescreen video and a Cameron audio commentary aside (and anamorphic IS going to be a troublesome issue for many DVD fans and high-end home theater buffs), this is still a must-have set for any serious DVD collection. In baseball terms, I'd call this one a solid home run. It isn't a grand slam over the wall shot, but it's close. I can't imagine a much more thorough DVD special edition, on DVD-18 or otherwise. Don't miss it.

5/25/00 Update

After first writing this review, I have learned that two Region 1 versions of The Abyss: Special Edition exist on DVD. The most widespread by far is the one reviewed above, with English Dolby Digital 5.1 and English Dolby Surround sound. There is also, however, a version produced in very limited qualitities for French Canada, which omits the English 5.1 for a French Dolby Surround track (there simply wasn't enough room on the disc to include all three soundtracks, so a separate version had to be created for the French-speaking market). You can identify the two versions by the front and back cover markings below.

English Dolby Digital 5.1 version
French Dolby Surround version
The Abyss (English DD 5.1 Version)

Back cover markings indicate Dolby Digital 5.1
The Abyss (French Dolby Surround Version)

Back cover markings indicate Dolby Surround

Bill Hunt

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