True Lies, The Abyss and the Blu-ray/4K problem

True Lies and The Abyss
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There’s still no sign of James Cameron’s True Lies and The Abyss on either Blu-ray or Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray – and we’ve been charting the stories of their non-existent releases.

Back in March 2019, James Cameron replied to a pair of Tweets from writer/director Rian Johnson, and actor Ryan Reynolds. Independently, the duo had respectively been looking for specific entries in Cameron’s back catalogue of films to watch, True Lies and The Abyss. And they came up against the frustration that fans of both have had for some time.

They’re pretty much nowhere to be found.

For the bottom line is this. Nearly 15 years after the launch of Blu-ray into homes, neither movie is available on the format. There’s been no new DVD release since their original discs were issued eons ago. You can probably find a VHS somewhere, but neither film is available either on streaming services, in high or standard definition at the time of writing.

Neither is available on the Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray format either, in spite of being on the wishlist for fans for a long, long time. And in spite of the fact that work has been done on both films in terms of getting them remastered and bringing them to high definition formats.

Here’s Cameron’s Tweet in response to Johnson and Reynolds from 14 months ago…

The excellent site The Digital Bits has long been charting the progress of both films on disc, albeit decreasingly covering the pair given the lack of concrete news. As the site’s owner Bill Hunt has noted more than once, they’re amongst the titles that most people contact him to find out about, but they’re also the titles on which there’s precious little news.

Still, there was a substantive glimmer of hope last year with regards at least one of them. For back in March 2019, The Digital Bits passed on the news that the colour grading for a high definition version of The Abyss had been tackled. A substantive step forward.

The work was confirmed last March too by a post from colourist Skip Kimball, who wrote the following on his Instagram feed.

And there it was, in colour. Remastering work on The Abyss was being undertaken, and here was the fresh evidence of it. That was over a year ago, and we’re going to go out on a limb and suggest that it’s not taken all that time to complete. The studio time had been booked, the colour grading at the very least is – on the technical side – complete.

Note that in the tags on that post, Kimball confirmed that this is a 4K remaster of The Abyss.

There had been speculation that the movie would thus get a fresh disc release at the end of last year, to mark its 30th birthday (interviews were reportedly conducted for a 20 year anniversary release of the film a decade ago, but that disc never came to fruition). 2019 also marked the 25th birthday of True Lies. Not a further whiff of either film finally getting that fresh release followed, and more radio silence instead ensued. It’s curious that the existence of the grading was allowed to be out in the open – presumably with an eye on a 2019 release – and then nothing happened.

The traditional hold-up to the release thus far, though, is James Cameron himself. That he has to personally approve the new transfers for both films, and the bottom line is that he simply hasn’t to our knowledge done that yet. In more recent times, he’s been focused heavily on his quartet of Avatar sequels, as well as his work on Terminator: Dark Fate and Alita: Battle Angel (and he was active on the promotional tour for the latter two).

As he told Empire back at the end of 2018, “it’s a question of time-management. True Lies and The Abyss both have Blu-ray transfers that are complete for my review. The problem is the next 14 hours when I have to go back and trim the color and get each one perfect. That’s 28 hours. I don’t have 28 hours”.  

He clearly didn’t.

But again, follow the evidence and the timeline here. At the end of 2018, the transfers were ready for review, by his own words. Is it too much of a leap to suggest that he’s approved at least the one for The Abyss, given that the subsequent colour grading was allowed to go ahead? It’s not just the transfers, either. In 2017, The Digital Bits reported that  “the work needed to compile new special features” had been done as well. That’s not actually the compiling of the features themselves, but more putting together what the shape of the eventual discs would be like.

Yet as those who have been following the non-existent high definition disc releases of these films know only too well, it’s little secret that they’ve been worked on, and it’s little secret that they’ve been planned. But without Cameron’s signature signing them off, they remain in limbo.

What may not have helped is that the 4K release of Terminator 2 that came out a year or two ago was not well received. For evidence of that, check out this 480 page and counting thread over at the Blu-ray forum digging into it. Whether Cameron approved the transfer of that film or not is a matter for debate, but it’s hard to imagine someone as technically exacting as him being deaf to the feedback. And – this is me theorising – that may well have delayed matters further.

There’s another problem, too.

As things stand, amongst the work of James Cameron, even Piranha II now has a decent Blu-ray release, courtesy of Shout Factory in America. But in the case of The Abyss, True Lies, Titanic and Avatar, these were all made under a deal with 20th Century Fox. And as we understand it, that deal (and Fox is where he had his production deal for over 20 years) gives him final approval on the way those films are presented on disc, and what extra features are included. All were due to be released under the Fox Home Entertainment label. But now, Fox is part of the Disney empire.

Does, then, Disney have the appetite for catalogue releases of older titles now, especially as it channels its home entertainment energies towards Disney+? Did it perhaps – and this is speculation – nix a release of The Abyss planned for 2019?

Appreciating that Paramount still owns part of the rights to Titanic, the 4K disc releases of True LiesThe Abyss and Avatar are entirely on Disney’s watch. Thus far, when it does 4K reissues, it tends to be around dates for sequels and remakes to and of existing movies (the animated film of Mulan, for instance, is getting a 4K release this year to tie in with the new live action movie). Thus, it’s entirely likely that Avatar will get a reissue when the first of the many sequels arrives (currently scheduled for the end of next year).

But where’s the incentive for Disney to pursue Blu-rays and 4Ks of True Lies and The Abyss? Granted, it may want to keep James Cameron happy, and there may be thinking that so much work has been done it’d be daft not to finish the discs off. Still, it’s hard to rule out that when Cameron does finally sign off the new releases of the movies, they end up on digital formats only. It’s little secret that the market for physical releases has contracted, after all.

In fact, that may already have happened. True Lies and The Abyss have popped up before in higher resolution on TV (in fact, there was once a digital VHS release of True Lies with a 1080i master, I’m indebted to 4K Collective for pointing out). And in particular, The Abyss appeared on HBO in the US at the end of 2019, and promisingly – as this report at Bloody Disgusting explains – it was a new 4K transfer of the film that was screened, in the correct aspect ratio. The transfer was presented in standard HD rather than Ultra HD, but it was the first sign that a new remaster was out in the open. Whether it was the same one Cameron was due to approve is unclear.

Furthermore, previously The Abyss has appeared on Netflix, and True Lies has popped up in HD on Sky in the UK. But neither are likely to be the Cameron-approved versions.

Yet it seems, though, there are now two stumbling blocks here rather than one.

Originally, it was all on James Cameron, whose commitment to the Avatar movies now runs until at least 2025 (and they’re going to monopolise he’s working time). Now, it’s on Disney too. And that leaves the likelihood that the best physical releases we’re getting for The Abyss and True Lies for the foreseeable future remain the DVDs (or that digital VHS in the case of True Lies) – unless an enterprising third party label can grease the wheels.

The demand from fans isn’t likely to stop. But that’s hardly made much difference over the past decade and change. True Lies and The Abyss remain two of the most high profile films of the last few decades to still not have a Blu-ray release. The 14 months of silence since we last got word of either tells its own story.


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