New 'Abyss' Proves Daunting Alternative : James Cameron has added 28 minutes of unreleased footage along with three minutes of expanded credits to his 1989 work to, in effect, create another film.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Laser discs have given directors a rare second chance at restoring their original visions, often altered or even mutilated in theatrical release because of economics, time constraints or the whims of studio executives.

Few directors, however, have used the new home laser medium more effectively than James Cameron. He has virtually reinvented his 1989 science-fiction film "The Abyss" for a special laser production. Cameron has taken the 140-minute theatrical release and restored 28 minutes of unreleased footage along with three minutes of expanded credits to, in effect, create another film.

Appropriately called "The Abyss Special Edition" (20th Century Fox/Image Entertainment, $100), the package includes a new digitally mastered transfer of the now 171-minute 1993 film supervised by Cameron in either widescreen or pan-and-scan versions; the premiere presentation of "Under Pressure: Making the Abyss," a one-hour program featuring interviews with the filmmakers and behind-the-scenes footage; a standard collector's section including an annotated history of the production, the complete treatment and final draft of the screenplay, behind-the-scenes footage, production artwork and storyboards and the original advertising materials including the theatrical teaser and trailer.

The three-disc "Abyss" set also represents the first major venture into laserland by THX, both in sight (the transfer process) and sound. The picture is rich, clear and sharp. The full-throttle sound envelops the room, especially a darkened one equipped with even minimal surround-sound speakers, turning it into a pulsating theatrical experience that mightily challenges shoebox-sized mall theaters.

This is not the first time Cameron has used lasers to restore his original concept. He did much the same for "Aliens" and came up with an impressive alternative to the original film release. "The Abyss," however, was far more daunting and so is the result.

Cameron has seemingly put as much thought into the laserdisc production as he did into the original $45-million, technical nightmare of a film. It stars Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the story of mid-sea oil-rig workers recruited to rescue a nuclear sub who encounter far more than they anticipate. In arguably the most detailed and thoughtful liner notes yet accompanying any laser release, the director clearly delineates his reservations about undertaking the laser project, why he went ahead with it and what he hopes to achieve.

"Though I didn't always agree with the powers-that-were at Fox in 1989, there was a definite sense that we were all working together to put the best, most effective version of the film in theaters," he writes. "And I had, by contract, final cut.

"But we had a picture on our hands which was much too long in our collective opinion. And after the first test-market screenings, we also found out that it wasn't playing so well."

He ultimately chopped out a tidal-wave sequence near the end that some thought superfluous and others believed critical to the film's resolution. Other establishing scenes were tightened, along with the credits practically zoomed to warp speed. "I believed in the release version," Cameron writes.

"But it is undeniable that these cuts did more than just shorten the film," Cameron notes. "They substantially changed its tone and more importantly, its intent. The original goal of the film was to tell a story of a kind of apocalypse in which we are all judged by a superior race and found to be worthy of salvation because of a single average man, an Everyman, who somehow represents that which is good in us: the capacity for love measured by the willingness for self-sacrifice."

Cameron says the new laser version "fulfills all the original goals of the script," but he's loathe to call it "the director's cut," since he had final cut of the original film. "This is merely another one."

In the process of explaining how he put this new version together, Cameron discloses a frightening situation in the preservation of even recent films. "Though sloppy vaulting procedures resulted in the loss of all our original production-sound recordings from the set," Cameron reveals, "it was possible to reconstruct" dialogue from Capt. Kidd Brewer Jr., a member of the cast who died a year after the film's release. Brewer's screen time was nearly doubled in the laser edition, his part rebuilt "from scraps of dailies transfers." (The laser version is dedicated to him.)

Among the edition's other pluses are detailed notes on 30 restored scenes, chapter stop by chapter stop, an invaluable help to anyone wanting to analyze exactly what was done in each scene. The notes come with a caveat that is worth heeding: Do not read them before watching the film "since the Special Edition is in many respects a different viewing experience from the original version."

Laser Bits

New Movies Just Out: "Bob Roberts" (LIVE, $35); "School Ties" (Paramount, widescreen, $35); "Traces of Red" (HBO, $35); "Flirting" (Vidmark, $35); "Leprechaun" (Vidmark, $35); "Passenger 57" (Warner, letterboxed with a crisp transfer, $30); "Under Siege" (Warner, letterboxed, $30); "Mediterraneo" (Touchstone, $40), last year's best foreign language Oscar winner; "Hero" (Columbia TriStar, widescreen, $35); "Pet Sematary Two" (Paramount, $35); "The Public Eye" (MCA/Universal, non-letterboxed and a superior letterboxed version, capturing the atmospheric photography, $35).

Coming Soon: Two from Columbia TriStar: "Howards End," featuring Emma Thompson's Oscar-winning performance, is due June 2 at $40, and director Robert Redford's "A River Runs Through It" (also $40) is due May 19.

Old Movies Just Out: "Peyton Place" (FoxVideo, 1957, wide-screen, $70), Lana Turner is featured in this adaptation of the '50s novel.

"East of Eden" (Warner, 1955, letterboxed, $35), James Dean and best supporting Oscar winner Jo Van Fleet star in a celebrated adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel.

"Circus World" (Image, 1964, widescreen, $60), John Wayne and Claudia Cardinale co-star.

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