Aliens, The Abyss & True Lies on 4K Blu-ray at Last

Aliens (1986)
The Abyss (1989/1993)
True Lies (1994)

Across a career now spanning 40 years (if we use the version of his résumé that lists The Terminator as his debut), James Cameron has proven himself as one of our most popular filmmakers. His oeuvre totals fewer than 10 movies, yet they have been much-appreciated mdash; including two that were top box office champs — so newer, superior disc releases are seemingly forever at the top of fans’ wishlists. Fox/Disney recently sent us a trio of long-demanded Cameron films in so-called Ultimate Collector’s Editions, available for the first time on 4K disc: Aliens, The Abyss, and True Lies. Let’s explore them in the order of their theatrical release.

An enduring sci-fi/action gem, Aliens is a suspenseful tale of betrayal, courage, and redemption that might be Cameron’s best work — a sequel that in some ways surpasses even Ridley Scott’s Alien. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) returns to planet LV-426, this time with a squad of space marines, to confront her fears, restore her career, and maybe save some lives. Two versions are presented via seamless branching, including an expanded special edition that reinstates some crucial backstory (and wicked violence), enhancing the experience tremendously.

Three years later, Cameron combined his love of the ocean and storytelling to bring audiences The Abyss, a sometimes-successful attempt to inspire awe as a crew of underwater roughnecks and a few Navy SEALs discover a strange new civilization. Here again, a longer special-edition cut is provided, with a Cold War subplot taking us to the brink of World War III. The restored scenes often feel forced, however, and not truly integrated with the main story, which emphasizes characters and relationships — not necessarily a bad thing.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was enamored of the French comedy La Totale! and asked his friend James to remake it with him as the star, which led to Cameron writing a drastically different script and helming True Lies, the story of super-spy Harry Tasker who manages to keep the truth of his dangerous career a secret from his bored wife. As Arnold is extensively (and obviously) doubled throughout, we’re asked to suspend disbelief to the breaking point. Though Cameron is not exactly a master of laughs, the film nonetheless has garnered a loyal fan base, particularly among female audiences.

The three movies were made on wildly different budgets and shot by different cinematographers using different film processes. An advanced form of digital noise reduction (DNR) that uses artificial intelligence ostensibly to improve the image, has been applied throughout to bring these movies to 4K, but the results are subjective. The images in question are at least 30 years old, and in their truest form had a distinct look, so any modification can be a slippery slope. All three films feature Dolby Vision high dynamic range (HDR) and arrive on triple-layer BD-100 platters to enable the highest bitrates.

One could argue that Aliens is one of those cases where the step-up in clarity has a downside, exposing the rough edges of ’80s analog visual effects (which, by the way, landed the film an Oscar). Film grain has not been completely scrubbed away, but if the inherent grittiness of the original release holds much of the charm for you, this cleaned-up version just might be too clean. On the bright side, the unnatural, waxy skin textures on display in the abysmal Terminator 2 are largely absent here, replaced with plentiful detail in freckles, pinstripes, stubble, makeup, and much more. Likewise, the 1.85:1 image remains sharp, even in scenes where dusty winds obscure headlamps, and HDR highlights are robust.

The Abyss receives a standout 4K presentation that far surpasses any of the previously available releases. Detail is extraordinary, right down to dirt on the actors’ faces, while searchlights cutting through the blackness of the deep are powerful and dramatic, despite some unfortunate ringing in underwater glows. Though the 2.39:1 image has been digitally refreshed, it remains quite filmic, especially for a movie that is not particularly colorful: Even so, the many shades of gray-blue are well-drawn within the wide color gamut.

It’s fitting that True Lies, Cameron’s weakest movie, is the biggest disappointment of the group: the heavy hand of DNR is blatant at times and color and contrast can be wonky with bright highlights appearing harsh and unresolved. I observed excessive strobing in fast-action scenes, an unpleasant distraction seldom seen in respectable 4K masters. Much like my estimation of the Inglourious Basterds “upgrade” a few years ago, this disc falls well short of the level of quality we know is possible from UHD Blu-ray. (As was the case with The Abyss, this movie jumped right from DVD to 4K Blu-ray here in the U.S.)

All three titles carry new Dolby Atmos audio tracks, exclusive to the 4K discs in each set. A brilliant remix and the selection and application audio cues in Aliens go a long way toward achieving the director’s intended moods (it’s no wonder the movie won the Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing). Keen usage of surround channels makes this strange, often terrifying world come alive, whatever the location happens to be, starting with the sound of the different docking clamps that lock onto the exterior of Ripley’s lifepod. There’s appreciable depth to the mix, with the liberal exploitation of overhead channels imparting welcome ambiance, and the strategic placement of effects within the sound field heightening the action and suspense, especially during shootouts and when the xenomorphs hiss and whip their deadly tails.

The Abyss is a showcase of subtlety, with excellent phasing between the speakers as earthlings and unexpected visitors swoosh about in the water. Individual instruments in Alan Silvestri’s score are identifiable and spacious in a soundtrack that also convincingly conjures the sensation of being inside a mic’d dive helmet and pulls viewers into the action with the aggressive rendering of a fierce wind storm that stands as a testament to the compelling nature of overhead audio.

Brad Fiedel (Terminator, T2) serves up another terrific score for True Lies, one that propels the action and adventure forward. Gunshots are frequent and forceful, as we feel bullets whizzing by. And amid all the firepower and explosions, the bass is rock solid, making big events even more powerful, something that can also be said of the Atmos soundtracks for Aliens and The Abyss. A DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack is also supplied for each of the three movies, whereas Aliens alone preserves the original 4.1 Dolby Surround theatrical mix (in Dolby Digital) along with two isolated James Horner musical scores. Finally, the Blu-ray disc provided with each of these Ultimate Collector’s Editions features a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack.

Aliens and The Abyss were both released on landmark laserdiscs, and Aliens is part of the larger Alien franchise, so a vast library of archival extras exists, most of which are provided on a third bonus disc. Standouts include a 2003 Aliens commentary with the director, cast, and crew and a no-punches-pulled “making of” documentary for The Abyss. Curiously, the extras for True Lies are mostly still frames, which explains why a third disc is not included. Each of the three titles also includes a new retrospective featurette, all of which add previously unshared insights to these enduring motion pictures.

Like so many of James Cameron's admirers, I'm extremely gratified to have these missing titles finally on Ultra HD (and even Blu-ray in some cases!) And yet I remain perplexed that a boundary-pushing filmmaker who puts so much care into his work didn't do more to ensure reference-quality delivery when mastering in 4K. Sure, these discs are cause for celebration, but perhaps more of a modest toast than a full-on bacchanal.

STUDIO: Fox/Disney
HDR FORMAT: Dolby Vision, HDR10
AUDIO FORMAT: Dolby Atmos with True-HD 7.1 core

ASPECT RATIO: 1.85:1 LENGTH: 137 mins./154 mins
DIRECTOR: James Cameron
STARRING: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton

The Abyss
ASPECT RATIO: 2.39:1 LENGTH: 140 mins./171 mins (expanded special edition)
DIRECTOR: James Cameron
STARRING: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff, Kimberly Scott

True Lies
ASPECT RATIO: 2.39:1 LENGTH: 141 mins.
DIRECTOR: James Cameron
STARRING: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Bill Paxton, Tia Carrere, Art Malik

ashurbanipal's picture

In your second sentence you write “mdash” — what does that mean? Was this article assisted by AI or is the proofreader on vacation? Coming right at the beginning of the article it derails the story. Please reach out if you need an editor — my rates are reasonable.

Interesting that you played down the uproar on the fever swamps of the internet regarding the purported heavy handedness of AI in sanitizing and smoothing Aliens. Some YouTube channels defending Cameron have been called some very nasty things and even threatened with violence. My own 2 cents is that using AI is a complete cop-out and an insult to artistic integrity. The contentious issue of preservation and restoration is not limited to film; consider the welll meaning but disastrous Victorian preservatives of medieval cathedrals…closer to our own time there was much discord about the restoration and cleaning of the Sistine chapel . Most felt the results revealed the colorful splendor of Michelangelo’s masterpiece in all its glory — others felt it was heavy handed and may have removed many subtleties and details.

trynberg's picture

It's not that Cameron didn't take more care with these movies, it's that this is what he wants them to look like. Cameron, much like Lucas, is/was surrounded by "yes men" and now we all have to suffer through their poor choices (at least Cameron only prevented a proper 4k transfer and didn't partially ruin his most beloved movies like Lucas did).

webtechno0961's picture

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