Sure, youíve heard of Titanic. But have you heard of The Abyss? Many believe itís Cameronís best movie of all time, and I have to agree. Set deep on the ocean floor, the crew of the experimental underwater oil drilling rig Deepcore are enlisted by the US Navy to search for a nuclear submarine sunk under mysterious circumstances. During the operation a freak hurricane rages above, severing communications with their support ship. Tensions build between the SEALs and platform crew after the sighting of an underwater UFO. Was it their imagination? The Russians? Or something else altogether?
The Abyss is one of those films I never tire of watching. Sci-fi, action, adventure, drama, romance Ė it delivers in all those categories. Before the Special Edition became available, several plot holes and unexplained events plagued the movie during its 1989 theatrical run. So, in 1993 Cameron revisited the movie and restored close to a half hour of additional footage which fleshed out characterizations, explained many critical events and included a more satisfying ending that, due to time restraints, had not even been completed before its initial theatrical run. Employing Industrial Light & Magic for the spectacular finale effects, The Abyss finally had all the material to make it one of the best underwater adventure movies of all time.
Rather than including only the theatrical edit or the half-hour longer Special Edition, Fox decided wisely to include both on a single dual-layered disc. Using the same "Seamless Branching" technology as seen on Stargate SE, The Abyss re-uses segments of video that are the same between both versions, invisibly switching to alternate sequences depending on the version viewed. As both versions take up nearly the entire disc, no space was available for the plethora of extra features they wished to include. The solution? Put them on a second disc, as A Bugís Life Collectorís Edition did.
About the largest disappointment around this release is the lack of anamorphically enhanced video (despite what the box artwork may say). Though the reasons around this are varied and many, itís sufficient to say the idea was considered and ultimately dropped. Still, the transfer is about as good as youíre going to get for "regular" quality. Unlike Foxís previous over-sharpened titles, The Abyss has a smooth, theatrical appearance to it. The movie starts off with some noticeable aliasing, however it quickly clears up. Black levels are well calibrated, as is brightness and saturation. Due to its constantly shifting nature, water is one of the hardest things to compress for DVD. It took a lot of effort to get all of Titanic on a single side without visible artifacting; the team working on The Abyss had a similar challenge. The end result is very commendable without any visible problems. The DVD features 54 chapters for the Special Edition and 45 chapters for the theatrical version, with the layer change occurring at 01:22.21 (03.05 into chapter 29) and 01:05.04 (in chapter 25), respectively. Both feature full-motion scene selection screens. Disc One contains 8 gigabytes of data.
The Abyss has been treated to a marvelous 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. Bass is deep and rich in all the right places. Iíve been waiting a long time to test my system with this DVD and I must say Iím very pleased. The Abyss has a full, rich, powerful soundtrack that adds more to the movie than even the then-cutting edge special effects. Dialogue is clear and easy-to-understand. Overall the mix is well balanced and pleasing to listen to Ė I detected no glaring problems when viewing the 171-minute long Special Edition. Though the rear channels are fully discrete and heavily used, they are mostly employed in a monophonic capability that does not detract from the overall enjoyment. Also available is a 2.0 surround soundtrack, along with English and Spanish subtitles and English Closed Captioning. You must select the 5.1 track from the menus before playing; it cannot be changed on-the-fly via your remote or auto-detected.
Special commendations must be given to Fox for packaging what is arguably the most complete collection of supplementary information ever assembled Ė itís nearly impossible to catalogue it all! First, the movie itself includes a commentary track in the form of text subtitles. Although a vocal track would have been better, this is more effective than you may think. Both versions include commentary; the Special Edition merely includes more. Impressive animated menus give you a pseudopodís eye view of the platform and, incidentally, are 16:9 enhanced.
Everything of additional interest is stored on the second DVD. Unlike most discs where items such as the script and storyboards are only available on DVD-ROM computers, almost all material for The Abyss is viewable from a standalone player. All bonus materials are categorized into several main groups. The first, Imaging Station, includes a huge array of videos and still frames. Youíll find the entire shooting script, the complete original story, 773 storyboards and a huge image gallery of photos and artwork. A 20 minute visual montage of special effects created for the Academy Awards nomination process is available, including descriptive notes on what special techniques were used in the particular shot. Short videos are available for the making of the crane crash shoot, the stormy sea and both the submarine engine and bridge flooding sequences. Video storyboards show, in motion, what the director was looking to accomplish. Two timelapsed videos show the building of the Deepcore full-scale set and the submarine pass-over motion control miniature sequence.
A multiangle segment allows you to use the "ANGLE" button on your remote to choose between four completion stages for the water tentacle (pseudopod) sequence. The "Abyss In Depth" area features two main areas, Operations and Mission Components. Both lead to literally thousands of pages of text, hundreds of photographs and numerous videos on such topics as the writing and making of the movie, the production and design teams, the storyboarding process, character development, casting, building the Deepcore set, working on Cab One and the pseudopod sequences. Whew!
Two documentaries show you the actual filming of the movie. The first, a 10-minute featurette, merely provides a brief overview. The second, a 59-minute long documentary produced after the Special Edition was assembled in 1993, goes much further in-depth. Indeed, "Under Pressure: Making The Abyss" is one of the best informational pieces included. It covers all aspects Ė everything from the long dive hours, equipment failures, heightened emotions, to the liquid-breathing-rat scene. Well worth the watch if youíre a fan of the movie or are just interested in the technical aspect of the movie. It is separated into 18 chapters.
Continuing the bounty of data is the "Personal Lockers" section where you can find individual biographies and filmographies for the cast and crew. Three theatrical trailers are available, with teaser, main and reviews variations. Also hidden on the disc are several additional trailers for Cameron films. To top it off, the "Drill Room" option will sequentially step you through all supplemental material in chapter form. Better have a few days free!
Looking for a little bit more? If youíve got a DVD-equipped PC youíll find it! Disc One includes the PC Friendly software along with the usual assortment of web links, plus the option to watch the movie complete with script and storyboards on-screen at once. Pop in Disc Two and youíll be treated to several simple games. Valve Control challenges you to reach a target depth by adjusting the pressure in a ROVís tanks. In Sonar Spy you must hunt for certain object shapes from amongst background lines. Finally, in ROV pilot you must try to pick up as many objects from the sea floor as possible. Not exactly high-class entertainment, however theyíre good for a few minutes of fun. Disc Two contains 7 gigabytes of data.
Bundled in the special dual-disc case is a 12-page booklet insert that includes a rundown on the differences between the Theatrical and Special Editions of the movie. Even if you havenít seen the Abyss this is an absolute must-buy disc. Itís not only one of Cameronís greatest films, but is an impressive technological feat by any standards. The superb quality of the supplementary material will no doubt be invaluable to students of cinematography in all its elements as well as of great interest to serious fans. Most highly recommended.
Caution: In Canada, a separate version of The Abyss is available with the words "Bonus French Track" printed at the top of the front cover. This version does NOT include the excellent English 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, but rather only ProLogic English 2.0 and French 2.0 versions.
- Reviewed by Daniel Tonks on March 30, 2000.
1-Poor 2-Fair 3-Good 4-Excellent
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