Inspired by the 1992 re-release of Blade Runner, which restored excised footage to Ridley Scott's groundbreaking 1982 film while eliminating additions dictated by Warner Bros., the early '90s saw a boom in "director's cut" re-releases, a trend that spotlighted the creative tension in big-budget filmmaking. The term quickly became meaningless—does a few extra seconds of nudity in Basic Instinct make a significant artistic difference?—but raised provocative questions. As revealing in its own way as Blade Runner and Brazil is the case of James Cameron's The Abyss, a strangely personal underwater adventure released in 1989 at 140 minutes, then reissued a few years later expanded by 31 minutes cut at the studio's suggestion for time considerations. What difference does half an hour make? A lot, and not always in ways that might be expected. In both versions, Ed Harris plays a deep-sea expert whose commercially employed drillers come to investigate a nuclear-sub accident. The mission reunites him with estranged wife Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and forces both to put their lives in danger to thwart a deranged nuclear-warhead-toting Navy SEAL (Michael Biehn) who threatens to destroy a recently unearthed species of intelligent extra-terrestrials. Almost every restoration can unreservedly be called an improvement upon the original—making the story more well-rounded, fleshing out the underwater environment, and better setting up the unexpectedly moving relationship between Harris and Mastrantonio—until a conclusion that relies on an audience's tolerance for a New Age by way of The Day The Earth Stood Still message of peace and love. All of which raises interesting questions: Who was right? Cameron's instincts seem dead-on for most of the picture, but they abandon him in the end. The clipped original ending may have been unsatisfying, but it at least seemed to match the rest of the picture. And what to make of the fact that Cameron himself doesn't seem particularly resistant to the changes? This new DVD edition presents both versions of the film, letting viewers judge for themselves and raising questions of its own. An hour-long making- of documentary, an array of behind-the-scenes details, and a running subtitled commentary reveal just how torturous the making of The Abyss—much of it done underwater for up to 12 hours at a time in an abandoned nuclear reactor—was for everyone involved. Which did that work better serve, a presentable commercial compromise or an ultimately wacky work of artistic integrity? Whatever the answer, this version of The Abyss presents an exciting, often beautiful film in the best possible setting, allowing a full examination of the paradox of attempting to make a blockbuster-sized film with vision.

Advertisement