"The Abyss"

Extras galore reveal teary breakdowns, chlorine burns and the nightmarish conditions behind this watery "Close Encounters."

Published December 19, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

"The Abyss: Special Edition"
Directed by James Cameron
Starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn
widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Additional scenes, text commentary, making-of documentary, trailers, screenplay, storyboards, games

"The Abyss" is almost a great movie. Director James Cameron, with his typically maniacal attention to detail, pulls off what is described on the DVD as "the toughest shoot in film history" to tell the story of a disastrous deep-sea mining operation. With its tight, claustrophobic interiors and amazing underwater vistas, "The Abyss" is fast-paced, suspenseful and full of surprises. If only the story didn't veer off in the last reel into a completely different movie, this, and not "Titanic," would easily be Cameron's masterpiece.

Ed Harris heads the mining team down about 2,000 feet below the surface. A U.S. sub crashes nearby, and Harris' crew is dispatched on a rescue mission, accompanied by his estranged wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and a handful of badass Navy SEALs. So far so good. But when Harris goes over the side of a seemingly endless undersea chasm in search of the sub's lost nuke, "The Abyss" turns, weirdly, into "Close Encounters." Suddenly we're meeting friendly underwater aliens and receiving preachy lessons about loving one another. You pretty much expect everyone to break out in a chorus of "Kumbaya" before the credits finally put a stop to the silliness. What could Cameron have been thinking?

We find out on the two-disc DVD. Along with the slimmed-down theatrical version of the film, there is a "special edition" version containing 28 extra minutes of footage that tell the story the way the director originally envisioned. It's not exactly an improvement; someone should have told Cameron to can the cuddly ETs before filming ever began.

Most of the extra scenes simply bring more depth to the characters. The two main additions are a computer-graphic tidal wave that the aliens use to send a little message to mankind (no one gets wet) and an extended scene in which the benevolent space critters communicate with Harris. Mankind gets the point. We all live happily ever after.

It would have been nice if Cameron had provided audio commentary for one of his most important films. Instead, "The Abyss: Special Edition" offers text commentary in the form of subtitles -- like "Pop-Up Video" but more distracting. Much better is the one-hour documentary, "Under Pressure: Making the Abyss," that follows the production from its start to soggy finish. "We realized from the beginning it was going to be difficult," says producer Gale Anne Hurd. "What we didn't realize is that it was going to be impossible in the sense that we never really got things under control."

Shot in an abandoned nuclear power plant, the movie required the cast and crew to remain submerged for as long as 12 hours at a stretch, exposing everyone to chlorine burns and all manner of stress. The chasm sequence -- it was actually shot sideways -- was so difficult for Harris that he broke down in tears. "I really thought I was going to die," he says. Mastrantonio actually stormed off the set one day when the camera ran out of film in the middle of a difficult scene. And then the makeshift tank holding millions of gallons of water started falling apart.

"Welcome to my nightmare," Cameron told the cast on the first day of production. He was right -- "The Abyss" was a genuinely horrific experience. But the result, warts and all, is unlike any other film ever made. The DVD, with its sharp picture and excellent sound, brings the movie's many elements into focus and provides a much-needed guide to Cameron's original concept. The special-edition set is almost too much of good thing -- the behind-the-scenes features are so plentiful they're nearly impossible to navigate -- but what else would you expect for a movie with this title?

By David Lazarus

David Lazarus covers business and technology for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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