Abyss, The: Ultimate Collector’s Edition (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Mar 07, 2024
  • Format: 4K Ultra HD
  • Bookmark and Share
Abyss, The: Ultimate Collector’s Edition (4K UHD Review)


James Cameron

Release Date(s)

1989/1993 (March 12, 2024)


20th Century Fox (Studios) (Buena Vista Home Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A

The Abyss (4K Ultra HD)



[Editor’s Note: This review is adapted from my look at the 4K Digital release from December of last year. New A/V comments pertaining to the disc quality are in bold italic text. Per labeling on the discs, each disc in this set is All Region.]

The Highlights:

  • The Abyss looks fantastic in physical 4K, improving upon the 4K Digital presentation, but it’s been given modern remastering that belies the look of a 35-year-old film.
  • Longtime audio issues with the Special Edition DVD 5.1 mix have been corrected on the new Atmos and 5.1 DTS-HD MA mixes.
  • Both versions of the film are contained on both the 4K and Blu-ray, and all three discs are all region.
  • All of the legacy extras have carried over save for the DVD text commentary and DVD-ROM games.


“…when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” –Friedrich Nietzsche

When the ballistic missile submarine USS Montana goes down on the edge of the Cayman Trough after encountering an unusual underwater object, the US Navy recruits the crew of the privately-owned Deepcore underwater drilling platform—led by Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) and his estranged wife Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio)—to effect a rescue. Along for the ride, and technically in command of the mission, is a SEAL team led by Lieutenant Coffey (Michael Biehn). Upon reaching the wreck site, the crew soon discovers that there’s no one left to rescue. But unknown to Deepcore’s crew, the SEALs plan to scuttle the wreck with one of the sub’s own MIRV warheads to prevent the rest of its nukes from falling into Russian hands.

Up on the surface, things are already heating up between the US and Russia. To make matters worse, a hurricane cuts Deepcore off from its support ship, Benthic Explorer. Things start going wrong underwater too, including debris from the support ship’s crane that comes crashing down from the surface to damage their platform, not to mention the fact that Coffey begins showing signs of compression sickness that’s slowly driving him mad (even as he controls the nuclear warhead). As if that wasn’t bad enough, a strange and seemingly unearthly force hidden in the depths of the Trough begins making appearances at the most inopportune moments, causing the pressure on Deepcore’s crew to mount both literally and figuratively.

When James Cameron sets out to make a movie, he really doesn’t screw around. In its day, Cameron’s The Abyss set the standard for underwater filmmaking, essentially shooting “real for real.” The entire set was submerged in 55 feet of water (7.5 million gallons) in a special tank made from the containment building of a half-completed and abandoned nuclear reactor. Special diving equipment was designed specifically for the production, including hard-hat diving suits and real submersibles. What’s more, the entire cast and crew were trained to work underwater. Large 1/4 scale sub miniatures were actually shot underwater, while 1/10 scale surface vessel miniatures were filmed practically in an actual gale on the open ocean. And of course the infamous “pseudopod” scene pushed Dennis Muren’s team at Industrial Light and Magic to create the first ever soft-surface CGI character in film. All of this gives The Abyss a thrilling “you-are-there” atmosphere, and an exceptional and seldom-achieved level of cinematic realism. That look of fear you see in the actors’ eyes is often real, the on-set danger ever present. Add to that some terrific acting by Harris, Mastrantonio, and Biehn, and you’ve got a fine and genuinely unique underwater thriller.

In addition to the 140-minute Theatrical Version, Cameron completed a 171-minute Special Edition in 1993 that is a significantly better experience. Whereas the Theatrical Version grinds to a bewildering and unearned conclusion, the Special Edition’s restored scenes add depth to the characters’ backstories and a much needed measure of tension in the form of newscasts that reinforce the superpower political drama unfolding on the surface. All of that leads to a longer and much more satisfying ending, which now has both a point and a moral. That isn’t quite enough to make The Abyss a truly great film, but it definitely gives the ride some badly needed payoff. And the ride itself makes the film worth viewing all on its own.

When I reviewed Fox’s 4K Digital release of this film back in December, here’s what I had to say about the video quality…

The Abyss was shot by cinematographer Mikael Salomon (Band of Brothers, Backdraft) on 35 mm photochemical film (in Super-35 “common top” format, with a variety of Eastman EXR stocks, often at 100 ASA) using Arriflex 35 BL3, 35Il, and Clairmont cameras, with Zeiss Standard Speed and Super Speed spherical lenses. Visual effects were also filmed in Super Panavision 70 format, with some plates done in VistaVision. The film was then finished photochemically in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio for theaters (which included 35 mm anamorphic blow-up release prints, as well as 70 mm blow-ups). For its release on Ultra HD, Lightstorm, working with Park Road Post, has built a new 4K Digital Intermediate using recent 4K scans of the original camera negative (confirmed per Lightstorm). This footage was then “optimized” by Park Road’s proprietary deep-learning algorithms. Photochemical grain has been greatly reduced, though not eliminated entirely, while fine detail has been “enhanced” algorithmically. The image has also been graded for high dynamic range, with both Dolby Vision and HDR10 available.

The result is extraordinary clarity and detail, so much so that it’s actually a little jarring. The film looks almost modern now as opposed to vintage late 80s, which is obviously Cameron’s intent. I’ve spent the better part of an afternoon looking at the new 4K Digital presentation on Vudu, Apple TV, and Movies Anywhere, and it represents a remarkable improvement over the previous DVD and LaserDisc image (and the forthcoming physical UHD release should improve upon it). There’s still light photochemical grain visible, as well as plenty of fine image detail. The palette is cool blue and gray, with vibrant colors in emergency lighting and display screens. Some of the special effects footage (shot on large format film) offers even greater clarity. Blacks are very deep and the highlights are bold, which definitely benefits underwater shots and especially submerged lighting. There’s no doubt that this is The Abyss looking better than you’ve ever seen it before, save for one particularly janky-looking miniature shot (a dramatic reveal at the very end of the film) that looks like it’s been sourced from SD. (I’m actually surprised it wasn’t redone with CG, because it’s always looked terrible.) This 4K image certainly isn’t perfect—it occasionally looks a little bit processed. Like Aliens and Titanic in 4K however, the more I look at this image, the more I appreciate it, and I suspect that most fans will feel the same. But the clarity increase is so dramatic that it does take a little bit of getting used to.

All of the above still applies to Fox’s new physical 4K Ultra HD release, which is encoded on a triple-layered UHD-100 disc. The only difference here is that the video data rates are significantly higher that the Digital stream—on the order of 50 Mbps on average. What that means, is that the color is a bit more vibrant, detail is a little more nuanced, the overall contrast is a little more expansive, and the whole image looks just a bit more dimensional. Everything that was great about the 4K Digital image is still great here, only better. Of course, the slightly-processed appearance and janky-looking miniature shot at the end of the film remain too, and each of you will have to decide how you feel about that. But there is absolutely no doubt that this film looks better than it ever has before, on both physical 4K UHD and Blu-ray (a BD-50), and that it looks exactly as Cameron wants it to.

As for the audio side of this experience, here’s what I had to say about the 4K Digital audio…

The film’s primary English audio is included in a new Dolby Atmos mix that features a bigger and more immersive soundstage than ever before. Subtle atmospherics surround the listener, with pleasing creation of unique sonic environments—critical to this film given how much of it takes place in tight spaces and metal-walled compartments. LFE is firm when necessary (the crane fall is a good example), with full-sounding mid tones. Dialogue is clear and readily discernible at all times. Directional effects and movement are smooth and pleasing—hatches slam, bulkheads groan, bubbles wash up around you, and subs and NTIs cruise and flutter around the listening environment. The height channels are employed subtly for overhead completion, but do get more noticeable occasionally, such as when submersibles pass overhead. Alan Silvestri’s score is subtle and mysterious, with clanging percussion, ethereal electronic tones, and occasional brassy flourishes. It’s presented in excellent fidelity and makes use of the entire soundfield. This is a fantastic sonic upgrade that impresses in ways both little and big.

Fox’s new 4K UHD disc includes audio in English Dolby Atmos, English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, and French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio on the Special Edition, with Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital additionally available for the Theatrical Version only. (Note that the Blu-ray swaps the Dolby Atmos mix for English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.) All of my audio quality comments on the 4K Digital Atmos apply here as well. Note that subtitles on the discs are available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, and Spanish.

Now, there was one issue with the 4K Digital Atmos mix that was fortunately discovered early and—thanks to my contacts with the team working on the discs—at least partially corrected in time for this physical release. Specifically, there were audio errors in the Special Edition that originally appeared in the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix on the DVD release which had inadvertently carried over to the Atmos mix. Those errors were as follows…

At about 16:38 into the Theatrical Cut, Bud asks Lindsey, “So what are you doing down here, Hotrod?”

But in the Special Edition, this dialogue is slightly different. At 20:36, Bud says, “You know, I can’t believe you were dumb enough to come down here and now you’re stuck here for the storm. That was dumb, Hotrod. Real dumb.” To which Lindsey replies, “I didn’t come down here to fight with you.” And that causes Bud to say, “Yeah, well… then why did you come down?”

Except that in the DVD version of the Special Edition via seamless branching, that last line “Yeah, well… then why did you come down?” was actually replaced by his line from the Theatrical Cut: “So what are you doing down here, Hotrod?” It was an awkward conversational turn, made all the more weird because you could see that Bud was still mouthing his SE line.

And near the end of the Special Edition, at about 2:39:22 in the 5.1 mix, there was an odd shift in the tone of the score caused by the branching as well.

[Editor’s Update 3/19/24 – Because I was able to notify the production team before the project was finalized and sent to replication, I can confirm that most of these errors have been fixed. The dialogue error has been corrected on both the 4K Atmos and Blu-ray 5.1 DTS-HD MA mixes. Unfortunately, the score error has not been corrected on the 4K Atmos mix, but it is correct on the Blu-ray DTS-HD MA mix. Why it wasnt fixed on the Atmos too is a source of frustration, but that seems to be par for the course with these Cameron titles. In any case, special thanks to Bits reader SuperDan on Twitter, the person who alerted me to the issues after attending the Special Edition theatrical screening back in early December. At least we did some good.]

Fox’s Ultra HD release is a 3-disc set that includes 4K and Blu-ray movie discs, as well as a Blu-ray bonus disc. Each of the movie discs contains the following:

  • 1989 Theatrical Cut (4K or HD – 140:16)
  • 1993 Special Edition (4K or HD – 171:01)

There are no extras whatsoever on either of the movie discs, but the bonus disc includes:

  • Deep Dive: A Conversation with James Cameron (HD – 32:23) – NEW
  • The Legacy of The Abyss (HD – 24:38) – NEW
  • Under Pressure: Making The Abyss (SD – 59:37)
  • Archives
    • Chapter 1: Table of Contents
    • Chapter 2: Introduction
    • Chapter 3: The Writer/Director and Screenplay
    • Chapter 4: Development and the Production Team
    • Chapter 5: The Design Team
    • Chapter 6: The Storyboarding Process
    • Chapter 7: Character Development and Casting
    • Chapter 8: Costume Design
    • Chapter 9: Training for the Production
    • Chapter 10: Filming Underwater
    • Chapter 11: ROVs and Video in The Abyss
    • Chapter 12: Production Chronology
    • Chapter 13: The Montana
    • Chapter 14: The Benthic Explorer
    • Chapter 15: Deepcore 2
    • Chapter 16: Flatbed
    • Chapter 17: Cab One and Cab Three
    • Chapter 18: NTI Scout and Manta
    • Chapter 19: Pseudopod
    • Chapter 20: Fluid Breathing and the Deep Suit
    • Chapter 21: The NTIs
    • Chapter 22: The Wave
    • Chapter 23: The NTI Ark
    • Chapter 24: Editing, Sound, and Music
    • Chapter 25: Publicity/Advertising/Marketing
    • Chapter 26: The Restoration
    • Chapter 27: Closing Commentary
    • Chapter 28: Acknowledgments and Credits

As you can see, there are two newly-produced retrospective documentaries, featuring Cameron, Jon Landau, and many other members of the cast and crew looking back on the project—both of them quite good. If you purchased the Digital release, you’ve probably already seen them. But more importantly, you also get the fan-favorite Under Pressure: Making The Abyss documentary and a complete archive of our old friends Van Ling and David C. Fein’s excellent 1993 LaserDisc extras (which were featured on the 2000 Special Edition DVD in the Drill Room section). These include a combination of still images (that you browse using your remote) and SD video segments as well. So the complete treatment and screenplay, the different script drafts, the production notes, all the image galleries, the trailers—they’re all here. You just go to the relevant “chapter” and step through its images. When you get to a video segment, the text will prompt you to hit “enter” on your remote to play the video in question. I haven’t gone through all of this material yet, but what I’ve sampled seems to work perfectly on the Blu-ray. The only thing that’s missing here is the text commentary from the Special Edition DVD. So you might wish to keep that disc if you have it.

Of course, as we live in the 21st Century now, a Movies Anywhere Digital code is also included on a paper insert in the packaging. The specific film versions and extras you gain access to via Digital will depend on the individual provider.

An underwater pressure cooker with a dash of Close Encounters of the Third Kind tossed in for good measure, James Cameron’s The Abyss—particularly its Special Edition version—is a very good and decidedly unique thriller that first revealed Cameron’s interest in submarines and deep-sea exploration, an interest that would not only lead him to Titanic but to the actual wreckage of the Titanic and eventually to the bottom of the Challenger Deep. The Abyss in physical 4K Ultra HD (and at long last Blu-ray) is a remarkable experience, featuring a striking restoration of the film that improves upon the 4K Digital experience in all the ways you would expect. What’s more, the package also includes a (nearly) complete archive of past special features along with some great new content too. This release should please all but the most picky A/V enthusiasts and is therefore highly recommended, especially for fans of the film.

Film Ratings (Special Edition/Theatrical): B+/B-

- Bill Hunt

(You can follow Bill on social media on Twitter and Facebook)