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‘The Abyss’ 4K UHD Digital (review)

Disney

The Abyss was James Cameron’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind: a non-traditional passion project dealing with weightier science-fiction themes than normal for a big budget Hollywood picture. It was an audacious and technically masterful production that Cameron earned on the credibility from Aliens and Terminator which dealt with his abiding passion for the cutting edge of deep water exploration and its associated technology.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to separate the brilliant, but uneven film that resulted from the crazed drive Cameron exhibited in its creation. I’m generally of the opinion that the work stands alone beyond the circumstances of its creation but The Abyss may be the most shocking instance of taking liberties with its actors this side of Vic Morrow in Twilight Zone. Ed Harris nearly drowned, and both Michael Biehn and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had nervous breakdowns while shooting. Animals were really submerged and forced to breathe experimental oxygenated fluid, and the attempt to recreate realistic deep sea conditions produced a working environs where the cast regularly feared for its safety.

After an American sub has an encounter with an unidentified sunken craft, the Americans and Soviets race to salvage the possibly alien craft against the specter of nuclear war between the superpowers.

Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mastrantonio) has designed a special deep sea rig that can withstand the enormous pressure and her estranged husband Bud Brigman (Harris) is the only man who can run it. They must contend not only with one of the most dangerous environments on Earth as well as Soviet competition, but a Navy SEAL team led by the paranoid Lt. Hiram Coffe (Biehn) and a vast, alien, intelligence at the bottom of the ocean.

The mastery on display in The Abyss is centered around the tremendous attention to detail given to the cutting edge and speculative technology that the team uses to survive the enormous pressure of surveying a wreck at the literal bottom of the ocean. It is unfortunate that all the power associated with those elements is directly tied into the cruelty needed to capture them on film in the manner Cameron did.

From watching a panicked animal actually being submerged in oxygenated liquid fight for its life, to knowing that Ed Harris nearly died as a result of being actually submerged in faux-liquid for extended periods of time to the moving scene where Mastrantonio is brought back to life and knowing that she stormed off the set because she was still being pounded on, freezing and topless, while they were changing film in the camera. The Abyss is one of the few films where outside elements dilute my admiration for quality.

The Abyss was shredded by the studio upon initial release who were wary of a science fiction film with so little traditional action. Cameron’s “Special Edition” is what is commonly released now. I actually prefer the Theatrical Cut, which because it lacks the Cold War subtext of the SE plays a bit more contemporary and maintains more of the mystery about the motives of the alien intelligence. The ultimate message of the Cameron cut– the human love in the micro represents the potential for human growth beyond violence in the macro– is a bit of a cliche and definitely an anti-climax for all the power and mystique the aliens are afforded in the first two acts, where everything is left to the imagination of the audience.

I’m amazed at the technical craft of this film and how convincing it actually feels, and I want to definitely highlight the amazing professionalism of the cast who delivered under the most terrible circumstances any Hollywood cast has had to endure in my lifetime. I think beyond that consideration, how engaged you’re going to be by The Abyss is dependent on how willing you are to be swept away by your imagination and how engaged you are in its ideas, so that you can get past its odd pacing. It is flawed, audacious, cruel, and full of awe all at the same time. It was a collective wound brought to life.

Extras include the Special Edition, Making of, interview with Cameron, and featurettes.

Recommended, if you have the stomach for it.

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