Fox // 1989 // 171 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // March 27th, 2000
"He sees hate and fear. You need to look with better eyes than that."
From "King of the World" James Cameron comes his masterpiece The Abyss. On this jam-packed two disc set, the viewer has the option via the miracle known as seamless branching, of watching both versions of The Abyss. Either the original theatrical version or the director's cut which contains an additional 28 minutes of footage. For the purposes of brevity and just because it is such a better version, I will focus on the longer cut of the movie.
The film opens with a taunt sequence involving the US Montana, a nuclear powered submarine, going down via mysterious circumstances at the edge of a 2 mile abyss on the ocean floor. Enter Virgil "Bud" Brigman (Ed Harris), the foreman of a submerged drilling platform known as Deepcore. Seems the US Navy cannot mobilize a rescue unit in enough time find out if there are any survivors on the Montana. The time table is also shortening quickly because of the rapidly approaching hurricane known as Frederic. The Navy sends a team of Seals led by Lt. Coffey (Cameron regular Michael Biehn). Also on the team is Brigman's soon to be ex-wife, Lindsay (the wonderful Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). While the crew moves into position, above on the surface, tensions have risen with the US government blaming the Soviets for the sinking of the Montana. Paranoia begins to rear it's ugly head below as well when Lt. Coffey begins to exhibit signs of High Pressure Nervous Syndrome.
Once finding that there are no survivors and based on sightings of Soviet vessels in the area, the Navy orders Coffey and his team to retrieve a nuclear warhead from the Montana for possible use so that the payload and technology of the Montana does not fall into enemy hands. In order to accomplish the retrieval the Navy team uses the flatbed that Deepcore needs to unhook from the main vessel on the surface. The seas are raging out of control and not being able to unhook causes a huge disaster (and killer action sequence) in which the crane and lifeline from the surface is thrown off of the ship and comes raging down below with Deepcore in it's path. So Deepcore is now damaged beyond repair and with limited oxygen. Alone and cut off from the surface, it's crew are helpless spectators to a world careening towards war and annihilation. Coffey is becoming more unstable by the minute and he has the firing sequence to a nuclear warhead. Add into that, there is something out there. Something, not of this world.
I remember seeing The Abyss in August of 1989. I was very impressed by the first three quarters of the film but felt letdown by a final act that seemed to come out of nowhere. It was part epic love story, part clustraphopic action thriller and part ET. It was the ET part that confused me. Well, with the expanded version, ET becomes The Day the Earth Stood Still and the movie makes a whole lot more sense. The funny thing is, at an expanded length of two hours and forty-six minutes the film seems to move a great deal quicker than the original theatrical version. When I opened this review I called The Abyss James Cameron's masterpiece and I feel very strongly about that. Everything about the film works. From the pioneering special effects to Cameron's screenplay and most certainly to the lead performances of Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, this movie fires on all cylinders. Everything seems so real. The tensions and fears of people watching the world they thought they knew spin out of control and become something totally different is always in the forefront and at the same time, in the background. Make no mistake The Abyss is an epic film. But like all great epics, the thing that holds it together is a very simple love story. It is the emotions that bind the two Brigman's together that prove to be their and ultimatly, the world's, salvation.
There are sequences of the film that have always stayed in my memory. The above mentioned disaster bit that propels the film's second half, to the underwater dogfight that leads to the movie's most gut-wrenching sequence. The death and rebirth of Lindsay Brigman. To "Bud" Brigman's freefall into the darkness of the abyss and his arrival into the light of a new era. Powerful and moving stuff.
I love the way Cameron uses the hurricane to show the storms of international politics and the fragility of human existence. It is his smartest and most assured writing. The film has scope and size but never forgets to show the human element. It never forgets hope, kindness and honor. And in the end, that is what saves us all.
It was with The Abyss that I became convinced that Mary Elisabeth Mastrantonio was one of the world's best actresses. What she says with a look and a smile say more than any ten pages of dialogue could ever hope to convey. I only wish she worked more often. As "Bud" Brigman, Ed Harris is very much the classic screen hero. Strong and quiet, his performance is that of a true leader. He has the wonderful quality of inhabiting a character, so much so, that the viewer is unable to imagine anyone else in the role. A great performance.
As for picture and sound. A lot has been written of Fox's decision to not release The Abyss with an anamorphic transfer. And I must admit it is a great disappointment. The transfer used, from the well remembered '93 laserdisc, is quite good but not perfect. In the underwater sequences, where blacks and blues are so dominant the transfer is quite good. The picture is smooth and with good detail. And considering how dark so much of the underwater photography is, there is a remarkable lack of compression pixelation. It is when the film is not underwater that the transfer is sometimes problematic. Colors are, for the most part, solid and fleshtones look natural. But there are times when there is too much edge enhancement that gives the film an almost painted and unnatural look. Detail is sometimes lacking, it is during these sequences that the 16x9 enhancement is really missed. A very good transfer, just not as good as it could have been. As it stands now, Fox is the only major studio that does not support anamorphic across the board. Even Disney, for the most part, has jumped on the bandwagon.
It is especially frustrating, when I hear of Fox discs that are released in Europe that do have 16x9. After seeing what Fox did with the Alien series, The Thin Red Line and Patton, all I can do is shake my head and wonder why. Also, when will the studio learn that it's much heralded "THX Certified" is fast becoming the laughing stock of the DVD domain. If "THX Certified" really meant the best possible sound and picture it would require a high def transfer struck whenever possible or there would be no label or certification given.
The sound on this 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is very aggressive and in your face. The front sound is very expansive while the directional effects and music use all the channels for a great listening experience. It is only when the film quiets down that some minor hiss is audible but it is hardly bothersome. The bass which comes through through the .1 LFE track is very strong and never comes across as boomy. A really solid and exciting mix. Along with the 5.1 the disc comes with a 2.0 Dolby Surround and subtitles in both English and Spanish.
This special edition of The Abyss can stand along side of the best "special editions" on the market. I'm talking about Pixar's A Bug's Life and Criterion's Brazil, high praise indeed.
So much material. First off, there are two documentaries. The first is a little ten minute feature made at the time of the film's release. It is the second, hour long documentary that provides the meat and bone on the making of the film. Almost all of the principals are heard from and the viewer really gets a sense of what the "hardest shoot in film history" was like. It is one of the best documentaries I have seen. Almost as good as Chris Rodley's excellent A Very British Psycho on Criterion's Peeping Tom disc, just in a very different way.
Some of the many other features included are: The complete shooting script of the film as well as James Cameron's original treatment for the movie. Then there is a wonderful treasure trove called the "Imaging Station" that has a great deal of behind-the-scenes and production material. You will find the above mentioned scripts and treatment plus all 773 storyboards for the film, a twenty-minute effects reel is also included that helped The Abyss win the Academy Award for best visual effects. There are several snippets of footage which detail the photography of the miniatures as well as rear projection used. But wait there is more.
There is a two-minute clip of motion storyboards using handheld models to depict how the final sequences will look called the "Videomatic Montage." On this feature, you can hit your subtitle button and it frames the image to the correct 2.35:1 ratio that the film would finally be seen in...very cool! The "Pseudopod Multi-Angle" let's the viewer chose to look at the various stages of the 'pod sequences: storyboards, dailies, working cut with temporary effects and the final cut.
The viewer can also see designs for every vehicle and creature used in the movie in a section called "Mission Components." Whew! Believe me when I tell you that these descriptions don't really even scratch the surface of all this disc provides.
There are, of course, multiple trailers included plus DVD-ROM features that have screenplay/storyboard watching capability and interactive games. One final note on the features of the disc itself. The menu layout and execution is among the most impressive I have seen. At first I was rather put off by the menus but as I continued to play around I found them easier to deal with and a great deal of fun in of themselves.
In this cut, I feel The Abyss is a great film. In many ways Cameron really did achieve his goal of making an underwater 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fox has pulled out all the stops on this special edition. Everything anybody would ever want to know about The Abyss and it's production is here. Editions such as this are why I made the jump into the DVD pool to begin with. It is only the surprising lack of a 16x9 enhancement that prevents this disc from getting the highest possible recommendation. This disc is a keeper and one that belongs on every serious film and DVD collector's shelf.
The Abyss is cleared of all charges. Although the studio, Fox, is once again held in contempt of the court for not taking that final step to give the movie buying public what it wants and deserves. THX is also ordered to include anamorphic transfers as part of it criteria for certification. Thank you very much. Case dismissed!
Review content copyright © 2000 Harold Gervais; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 171 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Special Edition with 28 minutes of additional footage and original theatrical version
* Text only commentary option for both versions
* Collector's edition 12-page booklet
* 60-minute documentary - "Under Pressure: Making The Abyss"
* James Cameron's complete screenplay
* Multi-angles of pseuopod sequence
* Three DVD-ROM games
* Extensive storyboards and original concept art and more!