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THE ABYSS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn
Director:  James Cameron
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  145 Minutes (171 Minutes Special Edition)
Release Date:  March 21, 2000

Film ***1/2

One of the many reasons I love The Abyss is because every frame of the film instills you with the thought of just how hard a movie this was to make.  Or if it doesn’t, the supplemental features on this disc will drive the point home.  But more on that further down.

No other underwater picture has the look or feel of The Abyss.  True, it’s a marvel of action, suspense and special effects, but for me, the biggest asset of the picture is in the unique lighting style.  Most of the story takes place several fathoms deep, so the conventional use of surface lighting could not be employed.  Lighting instead had to be mostly from underneath, and carefully controlled.  It had to be dark without being so murky that the audience couldn’t tell what it was looking at.  The overall effect is atmospheric and effective…you’re seeing a definite master of his craft at work.

When a U.S. nuclear submarine is lost at sea, the only chance of searching the rig for survivors before an approaching hurricane hits is a team of off shore drillers located nearby, led by Bud (Harris).  Before the team goes down, they are joined by his estranged wife, Lindsey (Mastrantonio), the woman who engineered their submersive unit, and a couple of military operators, led by Coffey (Biehn).  During the course of the operation, we get to learn the whys and whats of deep sea diving, including the dangerous effects of improper adjustment to the increased pressure…something Coffey shows early symptoms of.

The downed sub is perched precariously on the edge of a 2 mile deep precipice in the ocean floor.  And two things become apparent during the exploration:  the army is chiefly interested in keeping the nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Russians, and the divers are not alone down there.

When a spectacular accident leaves the crew cut off from the surface and their vessel beginning to deteriorate, the alien being makes its presence more known, to the delight and fascination of most of the crew.  Coffey, however, getting sick from the pressure and growing paranoid about the outcome of his mission, fears the creature, and send their lone rescued warhead down into the abyss to destroy it, just as it’s making contact.  It will be up to Bud, using an incredible procedure to dive further than any human has ever gone, to prevent the catastrophe.

Those are the basic plot schematics, but the plot is not really the film’s strong suit.  In fact, my only real complaint about the picture involves the alien creatures, which were created as a catalyst for the story, but for my money, were the least interesting part of it.  And that finale could have used some major tweaking…they make contact with an intelligent, other worldly race in a scenario that plays out way too literally, and is rather preachy and ham-handed.

Where the film succeeds is with the unbridled imagination Cameron brings to his project.  He correctly realized that the ocean floor is as treacherous and wondrous and as filled with possibilities as any artificially created outer space setting.  Here he creates a world that is both real and surreal, beautiful and haunting, and perhaps best of all, dealing with an expanse beyond comprehension, yet constantly claustrophobic in nature.  The movie may be about the big hole in the floor, but most of it takes place in tightly cramped quarters, emphasized with POV shots from inside helmets and such, and an environment constantly made threatening by accidents and disasters and near drownings.  It’s a long journey to the end, and most of it is spent in good old fashioned white knuckled ecstasy.

And though it is boringly typical for a picture like this to thrown in the obligatory love story element, few, if any, movies have done it as well as this.  At the heart of the bittersweet love tale between Bud and Lindsey is a surprising amount of genuine emotion, most of which bursts forth in powerful spurts, and anchored superbly by two magnificent performances by Harris and Mastrantonio.  And give James Cameron credit…he may be most noted for his explosive and over the top action sequences, but he knows when to let tender moments have enough time and space to breathe.

This disc allows you the option of watching either the theatrical version of the movie or the expanded special edition, which runs 28 minutes longer.  These versions are on the same disc, and work via seamless branching so that the shorter version could work around the extra scenes, with no pauses apart from the layer switch.  Personally, I prefer the longer version (and my rating applies to it).  As with the special edition for Aliens, what was initially left on the cutting room floor actually served the film’s back stories, and led to better overall development and pacing.  This disc includes a booklet with a chapter by chapter detailing of the differences between the two versions.  Try them both, and decide for yourself.

Video ****

Once again, Fox continues to dumbfound DVD fans.  They’ve obviously put more care and attention into this disc than any other they’ve released (and it shows), but…why no anamorphic enhancement?  (The package claims it’s enhanced, but it definitely isn’t.)  It would seem Mr. Cameron can’t catch a break in this department, since Paramount inexplicably forewent the feature on Titanic last year.  I would also suggest that Fox is damning the reputation of the THX logo, by continuing to sport it on non-enhanced discs…how can THX represent the highest possible home theatre quality without an anamorphic transfer?

I was more than ready to damn…yet, in all fairness, I must praise.  This is one spectacular looking transfer, even without the enhancement.  Scene after scene, in extremely varying lighting conditions, I found images to be breathtakingly clear and beautifully rendered in terms of sharpness in color.  The interior detail is amazing, the exteriors with selective sparse lighting are even more impressive.  No grain or compression evident, and the print itself is remarkably clean.  It was a joy to watch.

Audio ****

 The 5.1 soundtrack is equally impressive…multi dimensional and dynamic.  The constant use of the rear channels for sound effects and bits of music keep you in the center of the action from beginning to end.  There's also plenty of work for the subwoofer, with lots of low rumbling sounds emanating from the big machines at work here.  Balance and signal crossover maintains high integrity throughout, and the range from highs to lows is very expansive.  A great listen all around.

Features ****

Hope you have a few days to kill:  disc one contains a text only commentary, which is actually pretty interesting and entertaining.  Disc two contains the rest of the features.  They include an hour long documentary and a ten minute featurette, the complete screenplay, some multi angle special effects sequences, storyboards, DVD ROM games, a gallery of trailers (including some hidden ones), and a virtual library of information about the actual technologies the film employed, special effects, and much, much more.  All encompassed in incredible 3D animated menus with sound.  There’s so much on the extras disc that even IT is dual layered.  No question about it, this is one of the best overall packages ever produced for DVD.

Summary:

The Abyss is a powerhouse of action, drama, and technical perfection enclosed in an entertaining package as only James Cameron could deliver.  The film is a knockout, and the disc is even more so, with incredible audio/video quality and an unbeatable extras package.  Forgive the lack of anamorphic enhancement this time, and consider this one a must own.