The Abyss: Special Edition [DVD]
Director : James Cameron
Screenplay : James Cameron
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1989
Stars : Ed Harris (Bud Brigman), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Lindsey Brigman), Michael Biehn (Lt. Coffee, Leo Burmester (Catfish De Vries), Todd Graff (Alan "Hippy" Carnes), J.C. Quinn ("Sonny" Dawson), Kimberly Scott (Lisa "One Night" Standing)
One of the best films of 1989 was a film no one got to see: James Cameron's powerful underwater epic The Abyss. I say no one got to see it even though it was put into wide release in the summer of 1989 because the film people saw on-screen was not what Cameron originally intended. Instead, it was a truncated 140-minute version that sacrificed several subplots, an important thematic element, and a great deal of character depth in order to get a running time under two and a half hours.
The film was criticized upon initial released for being incoherent and shallow; and, in its 140-minute form, it was. It wasn't until a restored version emerged on laser disc in 1993 that Cameron's entire vision could be seen, and the difference 28 minutes of restored footage makes is the difference between a visually striking, but confusing film with an inexplicable ending and a visually striking, fully embodied story that not only makes sense in the end, but reaches for greater meaning beyond its surface narrative.
The Abyss is a rare film--big-budget Hollywood entertainment on a grand scale that is able to seamlessly incorporate many levels of meaning into an entertaining experience. Science fiction films have historically been about more than just their surfaces, but few have dared to move as deep below the surface into the complicated thematics writer/director James Cameron (Aliens, Terminator 2, Titanic) tackled in The Abyss.
Take the title, for instance. On the first level, it refers to the Cayman Trench, the two-and-a-half-mile valley in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where much of the action in the film takes place. Or, on another level, The Abyss can refer to the great abyss of death and the resurrection from those depths, a subject that is repeatedly explored in the film. Or, the title can refer to the abyss that extends past all the world's knowledge, the abyss that stretches into what we term "supernatural" and "science fiction" because we don't have any better words for it. All of these are at the heart The Abyss, and it represents everything of which movies are capable.
The film opens during the height of the Cold War (Cameron conceived it in the mid-1980s and filmed it in 1988). An American nuclear submarine goes down in the Cayman Trench under mysterious circumstances, and the Navy commissions the Deepcore, an underwater oil rig populated by a colorful cast of roughnecks such as Catfish (Leo Burmester), Hippy (Todd Graff), and One Night (Kimberly Scott), to help in a rescue operation. Deepcore is led by Bud Brigman (Ed Harris), an "Everyman" who commands respect simply because he's a good person who respects others first. A team of Navy SEALs led by Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn) transfers down to the Deepcore with Lindsey, Bud's feisty estranged wife and designer of the rig. Our introduction to her is someone saying, "Oh, no, look who's here. The queen bitch of the universe."
Friction quickly develops in several areas--first, between Bud and Lindsey. When he calls her "Mrs. Brigman," she quickly replies, "Not for long." "You never did like being called that, did you?" he asks. "Not even when it meant something," is her cold reply.
Then friction starts between the oil workers and the SEALs as Coffey begins brashly ordering people around. The comparisons between Bud and Coffey as respective leaders are immediately apparent, and the problem is compounded by the fact that Coffey may be suffering from HPNS--high pressure nervous syndrome brought on by the intense pressure of being 2,000 feet below the ocean surface.
As the groups work together to search the wrecked submarine for survivors, more problems develop. A hurricane separates Deepcore from the mother ship on the ocean's surface; the SEALs bring a nuclear warhead back from the submarine and arm it as a contingency plan; and then several people see mysterious beings (nicknamed NTIs, which stands for "Non-Terrestrial Intelligence") coming up from the depths of the Cayman Trench. Nuclear tensions mount when Lindsey is visited by the NTIs and Coffey (by this point torn beyond rationality by HPNS) thinks it is a Russian submarine tracking them.
In truth, the visitors at the bottom of the trench are a higher life form--aliens that came to live on Earth and have been watching and evaluating the human race. Cameron uses them to step back and look at the Cold War through another set of eyes that are not tainted with national pride or violent tendencies. The idea is hardly new (the same thing was done in The Day the Earth Stood Still), but it is effective in the way it gives the audience an alternative lens through which they can view what was going on between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and how perilously close we always were to destroying each other.
But, once again, that is just one of the many layers at the heart of The Abyss. Another aspect of the film is an affecting love story between Bud and Lindsey and how they find each other again. At the beginning of the film, they are at the brink of divorce, but after two gut-wrenching scenes where they each literally and symbolically pull each other out of the abyss of death, they realize their love all over again. Movies are so often about the creation of love affairs, and it's a refreshing twist for Cameron to focus on the restoration of damaged a love affair between two people who are polar opposites, yet desperately need each other.
The Abyss is also an astounding action film. Cameron is a master of big-budget, high-tech action scenes, and The Abyss has more than its share. Using a riveting combination of digital technology, miniatures, and location shooting in a giant tank filled with millions of gallons of water and covered with tarps and black beads to simulate darkness, Cameron created an entirely convincing portrait of what it would be like to live at the bottom of the ocean. Before it was half-finished, The Abyss had already gained the reputation of being the most difficult film ever made, which marked it as omen of things to come on the set of Cameron's Titanic seven years later.
In some ways, The Abyss is a message movie about the dangers of nuclear war. In some ways, it is a tender love story and affirmation of the bond between husband and wife. In some ways, it is an exploration of death and resurrection, or a fable about the power of the "Everyman." And, in some ways, it is an entertaining science fiction epic with outstanding special effects and heart-stopping suspense. Most movies would hope to succeed in just one of these areas. The Abyss succeeds in all of them.
|The Abyss: Special Edition Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Included on this two-disc set are both the 171-minute special edition cut and the 140-minute theatrical cut.|
|Audio|| English Dolby Surround |
French Dolby Surround
|Supplements|| "Under Pressure: Making The Abyss" behind-the-scenes documentary|
20-minute Academy Award special effects reel
"Pseudopod" screen-to-storyboard multi-angle comparison
10-minute making-of featurette
Complete text of the screenplay plus Cameron's original treatment
Complete set of storyboards
Detailed technical information on Deepcore, submersibles, NTIs, and fluid breathing system
Cast and crew bios
Theatrical trailer and teaser trailer
Three interactive games, "Sonar Spy," "Valve Control," and ROV Pilot"
|Distributor||20th Century Fox Home Video|
|Release Date||November 28, 2000|
|There has been a great deal of controversy about the video transfer of The Abyss because the DVD uses the same transfer as the 1993 special edition laser disc box set and is, therefore, not anamorphic. While these are legitimate concerns and the image could have certainly benefited from the extra resolution offered by a new anamorphic transfer, the image on this DVD is still quite good. The THX-certified transfer for the laser disc was done so well in the first place, that it still looks surprisingly good despite being seven years old. The image is clean and sharp, and the colors are rich and deeply saturated. Even with the heavy use of blues and blacks for the underwater scenes, the detail level is impressive and there are no signs of artifacting. Overall, it is an excellent presentation of a visually exhilarating film.|
|The Dolby surround soundtrack mix is not true 5.1 surround, but it is still immensely effective. The surround speakers are in almost constant use, and the subwoofer is put to the test in numerous sequences, especially the climax featuring the giant waves. This is a soundtrack that truly envelops the viewer. Even in the quieter scenes in Deepcore, the ambient noise of dripping water and creaking pipes is always evident, creating a fully aural atmosphere. Alan Silverstri's excellent musical score is also highlighted nicely.|
|The question is not so much what extras are offered, but what extras are not offered? This may be the most complete special edition yet released on DVD. It would take hours to go through it all, and by the time you are done, you will know everything there is to know about the The Abyss and how it was made. Most of the supplementary material was taken from the laser disc special edition, but some new extras were added, as well, including a never-before-seen 20-minute special effects reel that was sent to Academy voters for the 1990 Oscars. I could spend pages describing everything that is included on this two-disc set, so I will only mention some of the highlights. The 60-minute documentary, "Under Pressure: Making The Abyss" is a fascinating, in-depth look at the making of the film. It actually has substance and merit, and it puts the "making-of featurettes" that are usually included on DVDs to shame. The disc also offers a complex multi-angle look at the development of the famous water psuedopod sequence from storyboard, to dailies, to special effects in-process, to the finished product; three DVD-ROM games (accessible only to PC users; sorry Mac fans); and an interesting use of the subtitle option that offers a textual running commentary during the film that explains plot points, characters, technical details, and how special effects were achieved.|
Copyright ©1997, 2000 James Kendrick