His movies deal obsessively with high-tech hardware, so it's not surprising that writer-director James Cameron (Aliens, both Terminators) has gone on record to pooh-pooh the comparatively low-tech VHS video format as ''crap- vision.'' And that antitape bias is why you may not find The Abyss Special Edition on tape anytime soon. A new, three-hour reworking of Cameron's 140-minute 1989 undersea adventure, it's being released on video only in the higher-resolution laserdisc medium after a brief, attention- getting theatrical run last month. This is the first laserdisc held to rigorous quality standards by Lucasfilm's THX laserdisc division, and for those who can't stand letterboxing, Cameron has also supervised a well-framed pan-and-scan version that only occasionally crops anything crucial off the sides of the image.
One look at either of these Abyss disc sets and you can understand why Cameron's gung ho. It's like diving with magic goggles on: The images of an embattled ocean-floor oil-rig crew fighting off leaks, renegade SEALs armed with an nuclear warhead, and possibly hostile aquatic aliens boast a richness of color and clarity of detail that tape couldn't possibly capture. Following the movie, there's a candid (and keenly self-promotional) one-hour documentary that gives Cameron the chance to expound in his anal-retentive way about every last detail of the grueling shoot. And on another disc side, a vast still- frame section offers literally thousands of video ''pages'' of text and pictures that spell out all sorts of production arcana.
And what about the reconfigured film itself? About half the new shots and scenes, inserted in more than 30 separate spots, are a welcome enrichment. Further arguments between ex-spouses Bud (Ed Harris) and Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) lend more poignancy to their working stiff-versus-management shrew relationship, and some nice blue-collar character details touch on the workers' grinding routine (the hauling crew sings along to a Linda Ronstadt tape like a fleet of truckers). But plenty of the new footage just treads water; one especially dull segment loads tons of irrelevant geographical detail onto a dive group's visit to a downed sub. You'll want to hit the ''chapter skip'' button here.
The one seismic story-line change is the restoration of a major subplot: a threat by the undersea aliens to unleash globewide tidal waves unless humans give up their violent ways. That solves a big narrative question in the original release why are these creatures surfacing now? but the no-nukes message is laid on so thick, you may wish Cameron hadn't restored it. But no matter: With your remote in hand, you can play director too. The meticulously detailed liner notes flag every single addition, and chapter stops on the discs themselves (they're like CD tracks) make the preachiest additions easy to zip past. With such total joystick control, this Abyss blows any other version out of the water. Both disc editions: A-