The Abyss

The Abyss (1989)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Ed Harris, Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Extras: Documentaries, Featurettes, Screenplay, Trailers, Multi-story presentation, Storyboards, Photo Galleries and much more...

After closely following the development of this special edition of James Cameron’s 1989 underwater epic "The Abyss" in our Production Dairy for several months, I had a pretty good idea about the bonus programming and contents I could expect from this 2-disc package that is now making it to DVD.
I was eager and excited however to finally get the chance to see the final presentation of the film itself in this brand-new incarnation, and to lay my own hands on the involving supplemental materials 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and producer Van Ling have prepared for the movie’s fans.

"The Abyss" tells the story of a deep sea oil rig called "Deepcore" in which oil drillers literally live and work on the floor of the ocean. With sophisticated technology and a variety of small submersibles they live in a world of their own, a cold world of omnipresent and eternal darkness.

One day, an atomic military submarine crashes into an underwater mountain nearby and drowns. Immediately a rescue mission is organized and since Deepcore is closest to the crash site, the civilian workers and a small team of Navy Seals that are brought in are ordered to find the wreckage of the sub. While a heavy storm is brewing on the surface, Deepcore actually locates the submarine and the men manage to get inside to check for survivors – in vain.

The Americans immediately suspect the Russians took out the submarine with a secret weapon, while the Russian deny this. Then, in an accident due to weather conditions an American ship rams a Russian vessel who in turn interpret that as an unprovoked attack. Tempers are short and the political situation is heating up.

In the meanwhile the crew of Deepcore have problems of their own. The tornado on the surface has dragged the oilrig to the edge of an abyssal rift and they are short of falling over the cliff. While trying to save their rig, Lindsey (Elizabeth Mastrantonio) sees a strange apparition, a machine that seems out of this world. With radiant almost supernatural lights it glides through the water at breathtaking speeds, vanishing in the darkness of the abyss. Their attempts to salvage their situation is hampered however by the Seals and their paranoid leader Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn) who believes the apparition must have been a secret Russian submarine. He prepares one of the nuclear warheads he and his men took from the sunken submarine to destroy the supposed enemy. Soon a fight is raging between the Bud (Ed Harris) and his oil drilling crew, and the Navy Seals, a fight that forces them to go deeper than any man has ever gone, and that threatens their every life, maybe even all life on Earth.

"The Abyss" is a rather multi-facetted movie, which is what makes it so attractive. What begins like a cold-war thriller over time turns into an action showpiece, only to become a highly human drama towards the end. The film covers these genres and walks between them with an ease that is simply staggering. Masterfully told and captured in magnificent images, "The Abyss" is always captivating and enthralling throughout its considerable running length. The title itself is indicative for the wealth of interpretations and scenarios played out here, ranging from the literal abyss that threatens the life of the men to the more figurative exploration of the abyss of every member’s own mind and fears.

The 2-disc DVD set 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is presenting here contains two separate cuts of the film in a so-called multi-story presentation that utilizes DVD’s branching capabilities to hold both versions of the movie on a single <$RSDL,dual-layer> disc. One of them is the theatrical cut while the other one is the special edition version that adds almost 30 minutes of additional footage to the movie, giving it a very different atmosphere in the bigger picture. Both versions are excellent and well worth seeing, although I personally prefer the longer special edition cut as it puts more emphasis on the characterization of some characters, and because of the clearer social message it sends in the end. The branching itself is implemented absolutely flawless and is practically seamless without notable delays that can be found in some other releases that use the same technology.

The first disc of the package contains the movie in a <$PS,widescreen> presentation in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. A lot has been said about the disc not being <$16x9,16x9 enhanced>, but against all odds, the disc reveals a gorgeous image that is highly detailed. Since many scenes of the film are tinged in blue-tones due to the underwater scenario, I paid especially close attention to the reproduction of the subtle shifts in hues and the clear delineation of the color gradient without banding artifacts. The disc passes with flying sails. Although the transfer exhibits some grain in a number of the dark underwater scenes, the color reproduction is phenomenal. Without any bleeding the blue tones come to life with amazing clarity and definition. Faithfully rendering fleshtones, the transfer also reveals the beauty of the cold interiors of the Deepcore and the people within, presenting us with a picture that is powerful and stark in contrast. The compression on the disc is without flaws, leaving every bit of information on the screen intact with the introduction of compression artifacts. Slight signs of edge-enhancement are evident in select scenes but they are usually far and in between without creating distracting ringing artifacts.

The disc also contains a glorious <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track. Making aggressive use of the split surrounds, the soundtrack exhibits a very wide and natural frequency response. It has a soundfield that is spatially dimensional and effectively directionalized, especially during the action scenes. But also during many of the underwater scenes, the soundfield is engulfing, with ambient noises all around, allowing the viewer to literally dive in. The bass extension is good and unexaggerated, giving the track the necessary punch without ever becoming obtrusive or unnatural. Dialogue sounds surprisingly good, especially since it has been recorded live throughout, and the mix makes sure it is always present and understandable.
The music score plays an important part in this movie, setting the right mood for all occasions. It is also very well presented on this DVD with good spatial integration that creates a wide sound stage.

The amount of bonus material found on the second disc of this release is almost endless and will keep viewers engaged for many hours. Featuring three trailers for the movie and two documentaries, I found especially the 59 minute "Under Pressure" featurette superb. It is an exemplary behind-the-scenes documentary that really shows how the film has been done, and the video quality of the piece is top notch. Without gratuitous PR fluff, the documentary takes the viewer step by step into the production of "The Abyss" and explains many of the techniques that were used in this production. Taking time to explain everything in detail and covering a large number of aspects, it is clearly another highlight of this release, especially since it also features a large number of interviews with cast and crew members. Interviews, that really try to bring across what it must have been like to work on the set of "The Abyss."

But that’s where the fun only starts. Countless segments covering distinct aspects of the movie in minute detail are also part of the disc, informing viewers of the technologies employed in the movie and their real-life counterparts. You get to see a large number of effects shots while they were actually done, like the flooding of sound stages, or motion controlled camera shots. A 20-minute reel that shows and dissects all the effects shots from the movie is also part of this disc, as well as meticulously gathered behind-the-scenes video footage. On top of it you will also find the complete shooting script of the movie on this disc, accessible from every DVD Video player, as well as the original treatment writer/director James Cameron wrote when he thought up the story of "The Abyss."
Then of course there is an enormous photo gallery, consisting of hundreds of production design sketches, as well as the entire storyboard that was created for the film, shot by shot. A great number of technical information about the production, including a dedicated section about the vehicles and gear in the movie, as well as production notes and extensive comments by director James Cameron about his plans, intents and the vision of the movie are also part of the release. I am sure I forgot something in this list but believe me, it is good nonetheless. Combined with a great menu system this is a fully engaging DVD that will keep you ’submersed’ for a long time.

The DVD-ROM section of the disc contains even more special features, like a script-to-screen comparison where you can read the script and watch the movie while it is playing. There are also number of small computer games on the disc, like "Valve Control" in which you have to navigate your submersible to a target depth within a time limit, or "ROV Pilot", that allows you to steer your ROV through a 3D terrain. All of these supplements like their DVD Video counterparts are of very high quality and allow the viewer to learn even more about the movie and to make the disc more entertaining.

"The Abyss" is a fascinating movie and this special edition gives you the chance to see it in all two incarnations, supplemented by an unbelievable wealth of additional material. It is without a doubt the best release of the movie ever, easily eclipsing the Laserdisc box set in terms of quality, content and bang for the bucks. I know a number of DVD owners are unhappy with the fact that this is a non-<$16x9,anamorphic> release, but after seeing this special edition it is quite obvious to me that everyone passing on this release for that particular reason is doing himself a huge disservice by missing out on a truly spectacular release. Just for the record – although the video transfer is using the same master as the Laserdisc was taken from some years ago, the image quality of the DVD is noticeably better, the handling is more convenient, and the presentation is unmatched. Given the amount of work that went into this release, it is foreseeable that no <$16x9,anamorphic> re-release of this title will follow anytime soon. I sure wouldn’t want to miss out on this release at any cost and I know it will find a loving home in many DVD fans’ collections, where it belongs!