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The Abyss

"The Abyss" on DVD

Cameron Epic a DVD Showcase

by Jim Bray

20th Century Fox's DVD of "The Abyss" should have been one of the best examples to date of the digital disc's capabilities.

"The Abyss, Special Edition," also available on VHS, is a two disc tour de force that not only contains both the theatrical and "special" editions of the watery adventure, but packs in so much supplementary stuff you'll run out of patience before you run out of goodies.

"The Abyss" is James Cameron's "pre-Titanic" take on "The Day the Earth Stood Still," a tale of a Non-Terrestrial Intelligence messing in human affairs to keep us from wiping ourselves out. It's also part undersea epic, part cold war adventure, part romance, and part techno-thriller.

These varied themes cause the film to be a bit unfocused at times, but on the whole it's a grand adventure in the Cameron tradition.

Also in the Cameron tradition, the film pushes the state of the moviemaking art with its special effects, especially with the computer generated "water tentacle" the aliens send into the humans' undersea base.

As a DVD, "The Abyss" is even more grand; it's a "must have" for collectors and film students.

The disc's main feature is two separate incarnations of the film, the 140 minute version that played in theaters and a 170 minute extravaganza first released on laserdisc, an edition that fleshes out the story better - making it much more understandable, atmospheric, exciting, and complete.

Both movies have been jammed onto one side of one disc, a feat that Fox has accomplished by using DVD's "branching" capabilities to tell your DVD player's laser where to go and when. This is a nifty trick, considering most DVD's use both sides of a disc to offer different versions - and the transitions are virtually seamless, with the exception of a slight pause when the laser changes layers on the disc.

Purists and collectors won't like the widescreen (2.35:1) aspect ratio picture, though, because it isn't anamorphic "enhanced for widescreen TV's" and there's no excuse for that - espeicially with a THX-certified disc.

Audio and video quality (other than the non-anamorphic aspect) are wonderful. "The Abyss" was digitally mastered to the Lucasfilm THX standard - an excellent quality control yardstick - and the audio has also been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, which gives you stereo sound from the rear channels. This adds atmosphere and depth to the experience - if you have a Dolby Digital decoder in your home theater.

Once you've watched the movie - twice - you can dive into the special features. These begin right inside the box, with a twelve page booklet that includes a detailed outline of all the enhancements made to the Special Edition and where they appear in the film. It also lists the chapter stops for both versions as well as for the hour-long documentary "Under Pressure: Making The Abyss," on disc two.

Fox has also come up with an interesting new way to provide a running commentary for the movie. While most commentaries are on a secondary audio track and feature the director, star, or whomever, sounding off about the production (most of these commentaries are fascinating, by the way), "The Abyss" uses the blank area beneath the picture (the "black bar") for a text-based commentary.

This may explain why the widescreen image hasn't been enhanced for 16x9 TV's (you need the black area for the text), and it's a good reason, though it isn't good enough.

The famous water pseudopod scene is given its own section, one that lets you follow the development of the computerized effects using the multiple angle button on your DVD player's remote control.

Kudos to Fox's DVD hounds: the multi-angle capacity of DVD's is rarely used, so good for them!

If you still aren't satisfied, there are hundreds of screens of conceptual and storyboard art, the complete screenplay, and even three DVD ROM games to sweeten the deal. There's also an incredibly complete and detailed set of production notes that start from Cameron's first ideas and which give you the option to read the original treatments while you're at it. You can also choose to skip these rather long sequences.

The only drawback to all this stuff is that renters will never have time to get through it all without incurring late charges!

Life's sure "Abyss," isn't it?

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE Syndicate. Copyright Jim Bray.

The Abyss, Special Edition, from 20th Century Fox Home Video
140/171 minutes, Widescreen (2.35:1), Dolby Digital
Starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio, Michael Biehn,
Written and Directed by James Cameron.


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Updated May 13, 2006