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James Cameron
Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn
Writing Credits:
James Cameron

A place on earth more awesome than anywhere in space.

A civilian oil rig crew is recruited to conduct a search and rescue effort when a nuclear submarine mysteriously sinks. One diver (Ed Harris) soon finds himself on a spectacular odyssey 25,000 feet below the ocean's surface where he confronts a mysterious force that has the power to change the world or destroy it.

Box Office:
Domestic Gross

Rated PG-13

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Dolby Surround 2.0
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 145 min. (Theatrical Cut)
170 min. (Special Edition)
Price: $14.98
Release Date: 3/21/2000

• Both Theatrical and Special Edition Cuts of the Film
• Text Commentary
• Cast and Crew Biographies
• Production Notes
• Shooting Script and Original Story Treatment
• 10 Effects Featurettes
• “Under Pressure: Making The Abyss” Documentary
• “The Abyss” Featurette
• Storyboards and Still Galleries
• “The Abyss In Depth” Text Materials
• Trailers


Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-Inch 1080p 600Hz 3D Smart Plasma HDTV; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.

The Abyss (1989)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 31, 2014)

In my opinion, The Abyss stands as a middle of the pack James Cameron film. I place Aliens, Terminator 2, and Titanic above The Abyss. Logically, that means I rank True Lies, the original Terminator, Avatar and Piranha II: The Spawning below it.

I relate this ranking to indicate what a remarkable directorial career Cameron has had so far. Granted, he's cranked out a mere eight non-documentary movies, but only Piranha II was a total clunker, and according to Cameron, he got fired early in that shoot and had little to do with the final product so it barely counts.

I may classify The Abyss as a middling film by Cameron’s standards, but it's really a rather good movie, one that would easily top the list of many - if not most - other directors with similar or greater track records.

Due to a mysterious encounter with an unknown party, an American nuclear submarine sinks in one of the deepest parts of the ocean. Military forces led by Lt. Hiram Coffey (Michael Biehn) combine with a veteran deep-sea diving team headed by Virgil “Bud” Brigman (Ed Harris) to find the sub and deal with it.

A few complications occur. For one, the corporation that owns the diving operation sends Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) as a consultant. Bud’s estranged wife, their personal relationship causes friction.

In addition, Coffey hides a secret about his mission that leads to conflicts with Bud and the others. We also deal with the secret of the parties that interfered with the nuclear sub in the first place and a mix of threats/mishaps.

Your rating of The Abyss may change depending on which version you watch. The 1989 film initially appeared in a roughly 145-minute cut but it was expanded to about 170 minutes when a "special edition" laserdisc came out in March 1993. This version restored some small character moments but most importantly reinserted a major subplot that concerned the Non-terrestrial Intelligent beings (NTIs).

The latter addition became crucial. I liked The Abyss in its theatrical cut but found the ending to just kind of collapse; the last act falls flat. With the restoration of the subplot, the conclusion makes more sense and doesn't cause you to wonder what happened. Don't get me wrong: The Abyss works in its original incarnation. However, the extended cut makes it more satisfying.

A number of Cameron's movies have received the extended treatment, but The Abyss is the only one that really benefits from it. While the added footage doesn't make it seem like a whole new film, it certainly creates a much more fulfilling vision.

The heart of the film remains the same in either cut: a believable relationship story between estranged leads Bud and Lindsey. In Cameron films, the action may knock you out, but his films reach a higher level because of the realistic and compelling human stories behind them; the characters can be somewhat cartoony at times, but they still display qualities that usually don't appear in action films.

The Abyss lives and dies with Bud and Lindsey, and we accept and embrace their escalating reinterest in/recommitment to each other. It helps that Cameron cast two terrific actors; in lesser hands, the relationship may not have worked.

As also is typical of Cameron films, the supporting cast tends toward broad characterizations. The crew doesn't come close to matching the heights of the folks found in Aliens - a great example of how a strong cast can overcome cartoony characters - but all of the actors are decent, and they help the film whereas they could easily have hurt it. Biehn tries a little too hard to overcome his "good guy" image and be creepy in his role as Coffey, but he's still very good and he makes the part work.

I've watched The Abyss maybe ten times over the 25 years, and I must admit that I tire of it sometimes. The film starts off slowly and really takes a long time to get into the heart of things, which concerns Bud and Lindsey's relationship and the deepening threat from the NTIs.

Ultimately, however, all of those parts make the experience worthwhile. I can get a little restless in the early going, but it comes together well and makes for a very compelling and rewatchable film.

The DVD Grades: Picture D+/ Audio A-/ Bonus A

The Abyss appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has NOT been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Back in 2000 when I watched the DVD on my 27-inch tube TV, it looked great. In 2014 on my 60-inch plasma set? Not so much.

Sharpness consistently appeared mediocre to poor. Delineation tended to be fuzzy and virtually no detail emerged. A mix of prominent edge haloes didn’t help, and digital artifacts gave the image a messy feel.

Occasional examples of shimmering and jagged edges emerged, and print flaws popped up at times. Those remained pretty minor, though; I noticed a few specks but most of the movie seemed clean.

Colors looked flat and murky. Some of that stemmed from the underwater photography, but none of the “dry” shots looked vivid either, as hues seemed lifeless and dull. Blacks were drab and inky, while shadows seemed dense and somewhat opaque. This was a transfer that worked fine back in DVD’s early days but seemed borderline unwatchable today.

On the other hand, the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack seemed much better than expected for material from a 25-year-old flick. The forward channels provided an image that spread well across the speakers; it created an effective and lively forward soundstage. The activity in the rears was not as hot and heavy, but the back speakers kept up and added a lot to the action. The five channels meshed together in a smooth, satisfying manner that created a vivid impression of the various settings.

Overall quality seemed good. Dialogue occasionally seemed a bit rough or flat, but for the most part, speech appeared clear and fairly natural; I had no problems understanding lines even in the most hectic of circumstances. Effects sounded terrific, with a lack of distortion; the realistic nature of these pieces added to the impact of the film, as the highly-detailed environment shined.

Alan Silvestri's score also seemed well-reproduced, with clear highs and deep lows. While my "A-" rating reflected a slight age bias - I expect less from a 1989 soundtrack than I do from a 2014 mix - that shouldn't negatively impact upon this track. Despite its vintage, it still sounds very good and outdoes many new mixes as well as virtually anything from the late Eighties.

Essentially a port of the 1993 laserdisc boxed set, The Abyss comes with copious amounts of extras. While most of the supplements appear on the second disc, DVD One offers a few tidbits.

Whereas the 1993 LD included only one version of the film, the DVD provides two. We find both the 1989 theatrical cut (2:25:09) as well as the 1993 Special Edition (2:50:52). I discuss some of the differences in the body of the review so I’ll not do so again here other than to note that I continue to strongly prefer the longer version.

The Personnel Lockers section includes biographies for 12 of the actors and six crewmembers. These are generally pretty good, though the depth of the entries depends on the fame of the person; the text is fairly detailed for folks like Ed Harris or Cameron, but not nearly as complete for the less-known actors.

The "Personnel Lockers" also presents six text pieces that offer production notes: “About the Story”, “Filming Underwater”, “Recording Dialogue Underwater”, “Building ‘Deepcore’”, “The Diving Gear”, and “The Submersibles”. The "Personnel Lockers" appear on both DVD One and DVD Two.

We also find a running text commentary written by DVD producer Van Ling. It's a lot of fun and very interesting, even if Ling tends toward technical details. Those parts get a little dry, but he offers so much other strong content that they're easily forgivable. Reams of information appears, and Ling even displays a little "Pop-Up Video" style irreverence from time to time. It's a compelling piece.

On DVD Two, we find trailers. This area provides three clips for The Abyss itself; we get the "teaser", the full "theatrical" trailer, and a "reviews" piece that emphasizes the film's critical accolades. Also, please note that with a little futzing around with your player's remote, you can find trailers for fellow Cameron directed and/or produced films True Lies, Aliens, and Strange Days.

Even more hidden are additional trailers for Aliens and Strange Days; those two different clips can be found in the "Imaging Station". I couldn't find a second True Lies trailer, so I'm not sure if one appears on the DVD; I also speculate that other clips may be around the DVD, but that's all I could locate.

Next stop is the "Documentaries" area. The prime attraction here is Under Pressure: Making The Abyss, a terrific 59-minute, 34-second program that details the travails of the creation of the film. The piece comes from 1992 and includes then-current interviews with most of the prominent cast and crew members; only still-peeved-at-Cameron Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio fails to appear.

As much as I like this program - it really does tell a compelling "warts and all" tale - it's too bad a newer documentary was not attempted as well, if just because Mastrantonio might have been more open to participation now than then, when memories of the aggravation were much fresher. Maybe not, but an additional "updating" would have been nice. Still, even without that, “Pressure” is a very good piece.

Also included is a 10-minute, 23-second featurette called simply The Abyss. Despite its brevity, this is still a useful show, and it lacks the annoyingly promotional quality of most of these programs. No, it doesn't compare to the longer documentary, but it's worth a watch, if just to laugh a little more at the spectacle of Cameron doing his underwater interviews.

Next we move to the "Imaging Station" which provides a wealth of both text and video information. Here you can read the shooting script or the original story treatment. In regard to the latter, it's pretty startling how close the finished project hews to the initial draft. (It's not perfect but it matches better than I'd expect.)

The storyboards area shows 773 of those, presented in sequence. I didn't count the storyboards – the title card indicates the total - but I did add up the shots in the Image Gallery; it includes 16 sections of pictures, with between 29 and 273 per section, for a total of roughly 1450 shots! You can check these out through the individual sections or - if you're completely nuts - watch them in order in the "all images" area.

Still in the "Imaging Station" we discover a variety of video clips as well. The Visual Effects Reel provides a 20-minute, 47-second compilation of visual effects shots from the film. This piece was created for Academy Award consideration and also provides annotations that indicate what kind of effects appear. It's a little dull to watch, but it's a neat program to have.

Deepcore Timelapse takes seven minutes and 19 seconds to build the large exterior Deepcore set; all that time passes in minutes through the timelapse photography and the edifice grows right before your eyes! A similar program shows the Motion Control Timelapse Montage; it takes 61 seconds to focus on the shooting of some miniatures.

Still in the "Imaging Station", we get the Pseudopod Multiangle section. This five-minute, 47-second piece lets you watch the shots of the pseudopod in any of four different ways: 1) the final, finished shots; 2) the storyboards; 3) the rough shots from the dailies; 4) the workcut with temporary special effects. For my money, the last two are the most compelling, and I especially like the dailies; it's fun to watch the actors interact with nothing.

A variety of brief video clips appear. The Crane Crash Shot (25 seconds) offers a 23-second look at that scene, but in real-time, unlike the greatly slowed down result in the film, while the Surface Shoot Montage displays 29-second montage of "behind the scenes" shots on the ocean.

Two parts involve effects on the Montana sub: Engine Room Flooding (0:43) presents some shots of the miniature, while Montana Bridge Flooding (45 seconds) shows the full-size set with actors being inundated with water.

A crude piece of work shows up in the Videomatics Montage (1:47). These are essentially video storyboards that offer basic mock-ups of effects, and they can be quite entertaining. One cool aspect of these is that you can watch them either fullframe or letterboxed in a 2.35:1 ratio. No, they don't appear twice; the producers of the DVD actually use the subtitle functions to let you letterbox the image manually! Flip that "subtitles" switch and black bars will appear at the top and bottom of the screen.

Finally, the Demo of Miniature Rear Projection (0:27) shows how they made it appear that the actors were inside some of the underwater ships. None of these various pieces are scintillating, but overall they add up to a lot of fun stuff.

At this point, we leave the "Imaging Station" and enter the world of entirely text materials, with some photos tossed in for good measure. Prepare your thumb - you will do a lot of frame advancing!

The Abyss In Depth covers all of the text materials found on the LD. The "Mission Components" subsection discusses effects only; we get 15 different topics such as "NTI Beings" and "Little Geek". All of this information appeared on the LD, though sometimes under different names.

The other subsection is called Operations and its 16 areas more closely detail the creative side of the equation. We find areas like "The Production Team", "Character Development and Casting", and "Publicity, Advertising and Marketing", all of which discuss aspects of the film that generally don't specifically relate to the creation of special effects. Again, these pieces all can be found on the LD, though sometimes under different names.

If you'd like, you can access all of these materials in the same exact order as the LD in the "Drill Room" area. Unlike the LD, however, you have to proceed through everything; there's no chapter skip, so each and every page - all 30000 or so - has to be seen in sequence.

This section repeats text found elsewhere, as do some of the other parts; the "Little Geek" and "Big Geek" topics in the "Mission Components" are exactly the same, and they are duplicated in the "Operations" area's "ROVs and Video In the Abyss". It seems a little silly to duplicate the stuff, but there's no harm in it, I suppose.

These text materials are extensive and detailed, which means they're of most interest to the serious Abyss fans. Face it: casual observers won't care to spend many, many hours wading through all this minutiae. However, if you love this sort of material - as I do - you'll be tremendously entertained.

While not James Cameron’s strongest film, The Abyss remains a lively, engrossing adventure. It delivers involving situations and characters as well as plenty of action, all of which turn it into a mostly positive experience. The DVD brings us excellent audio and a ton of detailed supplements, but the non-anamorphic image looks poor by 2014 standards. If you watch the disc on a small screen, you’ll be okay, but those with larger sets will find it hard to muck through this ugly visual presentation.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.2777 Stars Number of Votes: 18
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Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main