The Abyss: Special Edition

D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   A. R.   F E R G U S O N

Hollywood über-producer Don Simpson called it high-concept -- films in which the idea took precedent over narrative structure and artistic expression. While working as a production executive at Paramount, this vision was expressed in an infamous corporate memo he helped to craft. As reported in Charles Fleming's excellent book High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess, the memo states: "The pursuit of making money is the only reason to make movies. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. Our obligation is to make money." Of course the danger of such a manifesto is that incredibly hollow films such as Hudson Hawk and The Last Action Hero get made. Simpson's credo also helps to explain the impetus behind The Abyss. However, The Abyss is a special hybrid -- a high-concept film with a humanitarian edge.

When a nuclear submarine crashes to the bottom of the sea, the Navy enlists the help of the crew of an underwater oil-drilling rig headed by Virgil "Bud" Brigman (Ed Harris). The Navy salvage team, commanded by Lt. Hiram Coffey (Michael Biehn), is taken to the Deepcore mining facility by its designer, Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who also happens be Bud's estranged wife. Once the Navy team decompresses, it becomes evident that Coffey may be suffering from high-pressure nervous disorder, the effects of which are nausea, disorientation, and irrational behavior.

During the course of the salvage mission, Lindsey has the first of several encounters with a watery Non-Terrestrial Intelligence (NTI). She believes the NTIs are peaceful and just want to communicate. Coffey dismisses this notion and thinks they are Russian in origin with the intention of leading the enemy to the submarine. After the air supply aboard Deepcore is severely damaged during a hurricane, Coffey takes measures to recover and arm a nuclear warhead from the sub. As his dementia heightens, he sends it to destroy the NTIs habitat located at the bottom of a two mile deep abyss. Bud manages to subdue Coffey but must travel down the abyss to disarm the weapon. He manages to do so but has no way of returning to Deepcore. The NTIís appear and rescue him. They prove to be very humanitarian and return both Bud and Deepcore to the surface.

At first glance, The Abyss does seem to follow the formula for a paint-by-numbers blockbuster. It has an action-packed first act, an introspective second act, and a riveting final act. However, Cameron made a very personal film that expands upon this formula. There are several key factors which predicate this. The two leads he chose are exceptional actors who bring a true note of realism to the script. His technician's flare for details results in the most visually impressive underwater footage ever filmed. And his choice of ending makes The Abyss something more than a money-making product.

When The Abyss was released in 1989, it had to compete against the marketing onslaughts of Batman, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Lethal Weapon 2. It did not fare well. Critics praised its visual splendor but universally remarked that the ending lacked a certain decisiveness. With its incredible two hour built-up, the ending does seem a trite understated. Rumors circulated that there had been an alternate ending to the film but that due to the rising costs of the production, Cameron had to opt for a more restrained ending. The truth of the matter is that Cameron had actually shot his preferred climatic ending, but he was contractually obligated to trim it from the movie due to the excessive running time of the movie.

It wasn't until the success of his subsequent film Terminator 2: Judgment Day, that Cameron was able to complete the "Special Edition" of The Abyss. This edition was originally released on laserdisc in 1992, then on VHS in 1996 and now the definitive version has come to DVD. The Abyss: Special Edition has an additional 28 minutes of footage compared to the original theatrical release. As with many "special editions" much of the footage consists of extended scenes with the support cast, helping to flesh out their characters. There are also a couple of extended scenes explaining the volatile relationship between Bud and Lindsay.

However, the most significant aspect of the Special Edition is Cameron's revised ending. In the theatrical release of The Abyss, the NTIs rescue Bud as an act of kindness in acknowledgment of his sacrifice in defusing the warhead. In the Special Edition, this reason is given a more ominous tone. An important setup scene occurs earlier in the film (chapter 18 on the DVD). While Coffey and his team are recovering the warhead from the sub, the Deepcore crew are shown watching television newscasts. The various reports suggests a world on the brink of nuclear destruction caused primarily by the competing interests of America and Russia in salvaging the sunken submarine. When Bud is rescued by the NTIs, they show him these broadcasts and then initiate a series of massive tidal waves poised to destroy cities around the world. When Bud asks them why they are doing this, they show him images of nuclear bombs detonating. The NTIs retract the waves and then the original scene with Bud in the chamber is inserted. With this three minute NTI communication sequence with Bud and the two-and-a-half minute wave sequence, the humanitarian message of The Abyss carries more resonance. The NTIs cease being a benign underwater entity and become a true force of nuclear deterrence.

The Abyss: Special Edition is a stellar example of the potential of the DVD medium. The menu interface utilizes a sub bay from the film: you navigate within the sub bay to access the DVDs various features.

Disc One contains both the "Special Edition" version and the original theatrical release. The audio (2.0 dolby surround and 5.1 dolby surround) is crisp; the creaking of the submarine during the salvage mission is truly eerie. The image is flawless in a digitally-mastered widescreen transfer (2.35:1 ratio). Owners of widescreen televisions will be disappointed to learn that the two-disc set does not contain a 16:9 version. However, this omission is balanced by the inclusion of an excellent text commentary. The commentary features a glossary of the technical terms used in the script, background information on the real applications of fluid breathing, and shot-by-shot breakdowns that indicate which shots are sets and which are miniatures.

Disc Two is an extremely thorough study of The Abyssthat literally takes days to fathom (pun intended). There are two documentaries, "The Abyss: Featurette" (a ten-minute promo on the making of the film) and "Under Pressure: Making The Abyss," a compelling 59-minute documentary. "Under Pressure" is a candid examination of the grueling process behind the creation of the film. For example, producer Gayle Anne Hurd admits that the production was never under control, and actor Ed Harris describes the experience as total chaos.

The disc also features a multi-angle viewing of the movie's pseudopod sequence: as the scene plays, you can actively switch between the final version, the storyboards, the original dailies, and the working cut with temporary special effects. There is also a seven-minute time-lapse film of the construction of the main Deepcore set, a video storyboards montage, and behind the scenes footage of the surface unit shoot, the crane crash, and the flooding of the submarine bridge. The disc also features over 5,000 stills, including the complete storyboard of the film as well as concept art. For the serious aficionado, there is a section called the Drill Room in which you can follow the wellhead pipe through every layer of the supplement.

With its proper ending intact, The Abyss: Special Edition completes a spectacular film that would be a welcome addition to any collectorís library.

The Abyss is now available from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment as a two-DVD set. Disc One includes both the Special Edition version of The Abyss (which inlcudes 28 minutes of additional footage) and the original theatrical versiono. Both version are presented in widescreen format (2.35:1). A text commentary option is also available for both version. Disc Two includes a 60-minutes documentary titled "Under Pressure: Making The Abyss," James Cameron's complete screenplay, storyboards and original condept art, three DVD-ROM games, multi-angles of the pseudopod sequence, and more. Suggested retail price: $29.99.