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Abyss Rises to the Surface on DVD

Plus: Unlocking The Sixth Sense in the Mail Bag

An Aisle Seat Entry by Andy Dursin

DVD has come a long way in improving the technical aspects of its presentation, but the one nut it had yet to crack, for me, was on the supplemental side. Laserdisc, with its CAV formatted technology, allowed you to skip through text material supplements (like scripts, still-photos, etc.) with the push of a button, accessing new material instantly.

When DVD tried to emulate that aspect of its older cousin, the result was cumbersome and often badly laid out, further compounded by delays in advancing from one frame to the next on certain DVD players. Menu systems were sometimes poorly organized as well, further confusing consumers who just wanted to find the promised goodies on the back of the DVD jacket.

Things started changing for the better last year when Disney proved supplemental can be competently done on DVD with A BUG'S LIFE, and Fox has taken the next big step by throwing every scrap of material from one of laser's greatest achievements -- Fox/Image's 1993 box-set of THE ABYSS: SPECIAL EDITION -- on a DVD presentation that even surpasses its predecessor (****, $34.98).

As a movie, James Cameron's THE ABYSS remains a fresh and invigorating fantasy, one that draws enormously from the strength of its central performances by Ed Harris as a deep-sea driller and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his estranged wife. The special effects, produced by a variety of FX houses including ILM, are somewhat inconsistent but the best of the batch were certainly innovative for their time and remain supremely effective; the cinematography and other technical elements (including Alan Silvestri's score) are remarkable and on a level with all of Cameron's cinematic output (with the notable exception of PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING!), while the director's original script mixes the elements of an underwater suspense-thriller with echoes of sci-fi fantasy that eventually culminate in an otherworldly finale, one that didn't work for most viewers initially.

Although the overbudget 1989 movie was only a modest theatrical hit, THE ABYSS gained a sizable following in the years after its initial release. After Cameron's stock went up after T2, Fox decided to revisit the film, have ILM finish work on a deleted special effects sequence from the end that would better explain and flesh out the conclusion, and briefly re-issue the film to a handful of theaters before releasing the picture on video.

THE ABYSS SPECIAL EDITION finally surfaced four years later on laserdisc, and for a number of reasons, it remains one of the most important releases in the history of the LD format. The disc was not only one of the first examples of a major studio getting involved in a release packed with extras, but was also a significant event because it exclusively included the "Special Edition" cut.

Now, even though the LD contained the new ending and additional scenes with elaborated character development, the "Special Edition" cut -- and that laserdisc box-set -- was always a mixed bag for me, mainly because the disc ONLY included the "new" version of the movie.

For starters, the extended climax of the film found in the Special Edition -- which turns the picture into an Irwin Allen-like spectacle with the previously benign aliens threatening mankind with a succession of tidal waves while taking a bold anti-war stand -- doesn't quite solve all of the movie's problems. In fact, it actually further takes away from the film's often nailbiting realism by opening up the picture's previously claustrophobic setting in ways that negatively contrast with what came before it.

When first viewed, the special effects of the extended climax are jaw-dropping and the finale makes more sense (in the original cut, the aliens were simply benign, glowing jellyfish who smiled a lot), but there's a heavy-handedness in the way that Cameron rams his point home that makes the extended conclusion a bit creaky. To stress his point of "war is evil," the director shows Vietnam footage, shots of A-Bomb testing, etc., but in doing so, he dates the picture badly. What was implied in the original cut becomes literalized in the Special Edition.

Of course, it's a trade-off: the new ending is great to look at and makes more sense, but it goes overboard in its message and turns the picture into a kind of '70s-esque disaster epic that's a sharp turn from what came before it. For some, the intimacy and simplicity of the film's abbreviated finale might work just as well.

That's where this DVD comes in and presents the best possible release of THE ABYSS imaginable: because of a relatively new "seamless branching" feature, the DVD enables you to choose either the original 145-minute theatrical cut, or the 171-minute Special Edition release, without noticing any layer- switches or other pauses. (Incidentally, in addition to a handful of new scenes, the Special Edition cut also includes different musical cues, culled both from temp-tracked material from Jack Nitzsche's THE SEVENTH SIGN and original music penned by the temp-composer).

Either way you go, the visuals are immense: the 2.35:1 THX transfer presents the best-ever presentation of the movie's Super 35 cinematography on video, while the Dolby Digital track is potent and layered with effects.

Even more satisfying are the supplements, which contain the full text and goodies found in the old laserdisc set, here revised for DVD. You'll find more images, storyboards, pre-production concept art, special effects documentation, and publicity materials are here than in any other DVD release. However, the most interesting facet to the extras always was and still is the 60-minute documentary, "Under Pressure: The Making of THE ABYSS," which was produced in 1993 exclusively for the laserdisc release.

Featuring then-new interviews with the principal cast, Cameron, producer Gale Anne Hurd, and drawing upon a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage, the documentary recounts the film's turbulent production, one that almost cost co-star Mastrantonio her life (she refused to appear in the documentary and, to the best of my knowledge, still refrains from talking about the film). It's revealing and insightful, getting into details that some of the cast still feels uncomfortable discussing; in other words, it's not your typical PR machine featurette.

The bulk of the supplements are contained on the 2nd disc in this 2-DVD set, which Fox releases next week for the very reasonable $34.95 retail price.

If you're a fan of the movie and never owned the laserdisc, do yourself a favor and pick this package up next Tuesday. If you already owned that edition, the DVD is still worth it due to the conclusion of both cuts of the movie, and in a better-looking presentation that takes full advantage of the benefits DVD has to offer. Great stuff!


Aisle Seat Mail Bag

Unlocking THE SIXTH SENSE

(MAJOR, MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!!)

(NO KIDDING!)

Reader David Lichty sent off a thoughtful response to an earlier letter printed here in the Mail Bag concerning THE SIXTH SENSE. I couldn't run this due to a lack of space until now, so to refresh your memory as to the contents of the original note, you can read it HERE.

As always, if you haven't seen the movie, REFRAIN from reading this email, though if you haven't seen the movie by now, what are you waiting for? (Perhaps the video, due March 28th).

From W.David Lichty (irmo@iquest.com):

    Hello, gentlemen,

    I have to address this because I saw the movie many times and gave it plenty of thought. Not to be contrary for its own sake, I have to say that the screenplay is actually flawless, and I'll honor that claim by doing my best to answer all of Roman's questions.

    First and foremost, this film is not at all a puzzle, and was never intended to be one. It presents no mystery itself other than the issue of what's beleaguering Cole. It never claims to be about Malcolm's existential condition. It is only sad that the press is out that the film had twists, setting people up to try to outthink the film rather than watching it be what it is, a relationship story couched in a ghost story.

    Something to notice about The Sixth Sense is how much it relies upon, and communicates through, subtlety. Or rather it subtly relies upon how people fill in the gaps while watching movies. Cases in point, when Malcolm and Cole's mother sit silently as he unlocks the door to enter early in the film. Most people would assume that they've just halted a conversation and are waiting for him to enter. When Malcolm "meets his wife" for dinner and she is silent with him, most people would assume she is angry and being cold. Mr. Shyamalan knew that these assumptions would be in place. He also knows that people expect ghosts to be presented as such in films. He presents his ghosts without any of the trappings, in any of their myriad forms, by which ghosts have classically been presented, yet breaks none of his own rules for how they should act.

      >From Roman Deppe's letter

      "Well, I surely liked it and think it is worth watching, but I was surprised top hear especially from you that you think it is well written. This movie has so many plotholes that I stopped counting after halfway through. The "shocking" ending was obvious right after 5 minutes, but that's not the point"

    This shocking ending seems to be obvious to people all over the globe now that the film is over 6 months old. I'm sorry, but as you say, it's printed on the soundtrack. This is clearly no fault of the screenplay, as it rightly assumes that no one watching will think, "Hey, I'll bet he's dead now, and a ghost!" The film language used communicates nothing of the sort (without lying to do so) when it dissolves to the future and shows us a normal looking Dr. Malcolm at work on a bench. I believe that only foreknowledge can explain this, even if it's just foreknowledge that there's a twist to be unmasked. It is unfortunate that the film got such buzz, as it isn't a movie about twists, or even about its horrors. It's a well plotted human story. If one goes into a film knowing that there's a twist to be solved, yeah, he's gonna think in the right direction eventually. And miss out on what the movie's really about.

      "The whole idea of the movie doesn't work at all: If the ghost don't know, they are dead, why do they go to the boy?

    Because they do know that they need help, and they do know that they need *his* help. How this is so is not detailed, but that it is so is. It is also examplified with the boy sporting an open cranium and with Kyra. She is quite clearly confused about her state and Cole's identity.

      "It is just not possible that Malcolm lives for over a year together with his wife and doesn't realize he is dead!

    The film makes no indication that he did live with his wife for a year, or even 9 months. It does make an implication, and then reinforces it, that Malcolm does not pass through time continuously. When he sits down at dinner with his wife, the first comment he makes is that he's losing track of time. He also has no idea that it is his anniversary. Throughout the movie he pulls on his red basement doorknob only to find it locked. He reaches into his pocket for a key, but in reality just moves on downstairs because that's where he was going. He does not open the door, ever. This is evidenced when he flashes back after the grand revelation to the door, and finally sees the blockage in front of it, a blockage he never moved. Malcolm is skipping through time. He "lives" life much like we remember it, passing from relevant event to relevant event. The film gives us no reason to believe that he has had any experience (after his shooting) that we don't seen on screen.

    The film does tell us that most of the ghosts are confused, and do not realize that they're dead. There is the ghost in Cole's kitchen, who has clearly been there a while, and yet does not know.

      "Why can some ghosts affect the reality and others can't?"

    They appear to only be able to have any affect when feeling an extreme emotion, like anger or fear. This is stated somewhat (again, much in this film is communicated subtly, but it's all there), and evidenced primarily in the visible breath, visible only when a ghost seems to be angry (like the kitchen lady) or scared (Kyra). Note that Cole's breath is not seen when the cranium boy, who's quite mellow, wants to show him the gun. Malcolm's wife also doesn't have cold breath at the anniversary dinner, but does when Malcolm is sad around her. Malcolm busts her work window in anger as well.

      " Who hurts the boy? And moreover why as the ghosts just want help?"

    A confused ghost, who never left that part of the house, hurts Cole when he invades its space. Cole seems to have had two kinds of experiences with ghosts. Either they want help and intrude upon him, talking to him like he's someone they know (which would be naturally disconcerting), or they don't (or can't pursue it) and he intrudes upon them and seems to be met with almost animal like defensiveness (lady in the kitchen and whomever in the place the boys stuff him into). This is why he runs the instant he sees Malcolm across the street at the beginning of the film. It's why he finds Malcolm's behavior towards him in the church, respectfully non-aggressive, so unusual and disarming. Malcolm would be the first ghost whose "ghostly confusion" would be mitigated by having been a child psychologist in life, with all of its practices in approaching troubled children.

    Cole is a kid who has seen dead people for as long as he can remember, so he knows Malcolm is dead the second he first sees him. He runs away so that he can pass Malcolm's side of the street before Malcolm gets there, and rushes into the church. He's afraid of Malcolm (unless he had an urgent need to play with his army guys in church). Malcolm comes in and talks to him with more care and respect than he's used to from a ghost. Cole gives him some attention, but before leaving, he asks Malcolm "I'm gonna SEE you again, aren't I?"

    When Malcolm is in his house, having apparently just spoken with Cole's mother, Cole refuses to speak to Dr. Malcolm until his mother is out of earshot, although it plays as if he's just uncomfortable with this new Doctor/Client thing. He decides that Malcolm can't help him, yet we see them talking again later, on the way to school. Cole has sort of taken Malcolm on as a client, as he knows what Malcolm's problem is, while Malcolm is clueless about his. After the Stuttering Stanley incident, he has no patience for Malcolm, yet tolerates Malcolm's little Magic Trick. He tolerates him the way one tolerates someone they care about when they'd just rather not. These are two very lonely and isolated people. A connection would only be natural.

    Cole has plenty of opportunities to tell Malcolm what state he's in, when he finally reveals his secret, and especially when Malcolm tells him that he can't be his doctor anymore - it could be in Cole's best interests to do so. But he doesn't. He doesn't only because he cares about Malcolm, and how the news would affect him.

    I'm afraid that the only way to fault the script on internal "ghost" logic is to actually impose one's own preconceptions upon it, because it sets up all that we need to know about the dead, and follows its rules to the letter. I think Mr. Shyamalan rightly avoids having some ghost expert show up in some horrible expostiional scene revealing the true nature and rules of the ghosts, or whatever it would have taken to make it more explicit, because the movie isn't about the nature of the ghosts. Having the audience process a set of rules and conditions would distract from the real story. It's about a couple of disturbed and lonely people who meet and help each other through their problems. It's more Terms Of Endearment than Scooby-Doo. There isn't a single scare in the film where the scare itself is the punchline to the scene. All of the scares lead to very emotional moments, character moments. The horror story supports the human stories, it's not the other way around.

      "These things and a lot more make the script (which has some touching moments, I admit that) one of the worst scripts of the year."

    I have only scratched the surface with this letter. I urge you to see it again. It's a better movie the second time, after you really do know the secrets, and (hopefully) aren't so focused upon them. See if how I've explained things bears out, but moreover, watch these two characters, knowing how they see each other throughout the film. It's always easier to let a movie be what it actually is outside of its press when you see it again. Take advantage. You have the opportunity to really enjoy something that, hopefully only at first glance, didn't meet your initial expectations. Well, go back and just expect it to be what it is, and see how it works for you!


NEXT WEEK: MGM DVDs, your comments, and MISSION TO MARS. All emails can be sent to me at dursina@att.net and we'll see you then. Excelsior!


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