Written by: David Webb Peoples and Jeb Stuart
Directed by: George P. Cosmatos
Starring: Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, and Ernie Hudson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"I realize you must have gone through hell."
"Gone? Bitch, we're still here!"
"Gone? Bitch, we're still here!"
Watching Leviathan in conjunction with the likes of Sharknado and Sharktopus this week proved to be an apt experience considering how much the latter films speak to the sad state of this particular sub-genre, as the cheap junk has become its most active and (mystifyingly) popular face. Like the The Asylum and Roger Corman’s output, Leviathan was likely dismissed as junky knock-off of better genre films upon release. Its influences are obvious: part Alien, part The Thing, completely a reflection of Hollywood’s late-80s obsession with the ocean depths, George Cosmatos’s underwater monster movie could hardly be more derivative. And yet, revisiting it 25 years later reveals a sobering truth: even the monster movie knock-offs of this era are better than just about anything we have today, precisely because they weren’t just treated as cheap junk.
The film’s “Alien but underwater” premise is barely disguised: in the future, a group of blue collar grunts are in charge of mining operation at the behest of a corporate overlord (represented by on-screen emissary Meg Foster). On the heels of a particularly perilous workday, Captain Steven Beck (Peter Weller) opts to give his crew a day off, only to have the festivities interrupted by the discovery of the Leviathan, a Russian vessel that appears to have been scuttled under mysterious circumstances. Beck and company manage to salvage a safe containing some records, a captain’s log, and a flask of vodka; however, unbeknownst to them, the safe is also carrying the malicious secret to Leviathan’s sinking, which has awakened to stalk the crew.
The sheer brazenness of Leviathan’s copycat intentions is kind of remarkable—it actually doesn’t go out of its way to hide its inspiration any more than, say, The Asylum’s mockbusters (the only difference here would be timing and not resorting to a familiar title in order to cause market confusion). From the outset, it’s so clearly a riff on Alien, from the rugged crew to the multiple lines referring to “the company” that has no qualms about sacrificing manpower for the bottom line. Like the crew of the Nostromo, these miners have to contend with both an alien creature and bosses who would rather capture and harvest the being at the expense of employees. At one point, it even looks like this monster will follow the same lifespan as the xenomorph when an arachnid creature with spindly appendages pops up and looks strikingly similar to a facehugger.
It’s only part of an in-movie gag, though, not to mention an extra-textual wink to let the audience know they’re not the only ones who know what’s up. Thankfully, it’s just a quick nod, as Leviathan doesn’t get too caught up in goofing off: it might be a dumb knock-off, but it’s trying to be the best dumb knock-off it can possibly be, even when it has to resort to also ripping off The Thing once the creature begins absorbing its prey. A quick glimpse at the cast and crew ensures Leviathan’s ascension from “what-the-hell-are-they-doing-here?” embarrassment (read: my reaction to most modern monster movies) to “hey, this is a pretty solid little B-movie.”
These days, you can count on fading pseudo-celebs or actors clinging to the spotlight in the latest Syfy joint, but Leviathan boasts the likes of Weller, Ernie Hudson, Daniel Stern, and Richard Crenna, all of whom are fully invested and committed in replicating the roughneck crews in similar films. Granted, they’re not as memorable as their predecessors in Scott’s, Cameron’s, and Carpenter’s previous films (or, hell, Cameron’s later film, The Abyss, which was released months after Leviathan), but they’re an enjoyable bunch to hang with until the film gets down to business. There’s chemistry and camaraderie here, and while some of the heavier subplots (such as Crenna’s wracked-with-guilt scientist brooding about his checkered past) don’t quite carry the weight they should, watching the crew muck around doesn’t feel like an absolute chore.
That said, this stretch of Leviathan does leave audiences wishing for a little bit more atmosphere and tension. It often feels like Cosmatos simply coasts on the concept rather than infuse the film with the overbearing sense of oppression necessary for such a film. Claustrophobia is implied more than it’s an explicit element, and the paranoiac implications aren’t played up as much as they could be (in fact, the payoff to the company’s callous disregard for its employees is reduced to an outrageous closing note once the film goes full-on, swaggering B-movie, complete with explosions and one-liners). Despite taking inspiration from two of the most terrifying movies ever made, Leviathan is in a hurry to degenerate into a splattery effects showcase.
But can you really blame it for doing so with Stan Winston Studios at the helm? Conventionally, championing effects over all else makes for a kind of empty experience, but movies like Leviathan consistently serve as an exception to the rule. Without the gruesome, sometimes-over-the-top gore gags, it would probably be lost to time as a pretty forgettable monster movie cash-in. Even with them, it sometimes borders on that. Fortunately, the effects shine well enough—I can’t stress enough how refreshing it is to bump into a creature feature that actually gives a damn about this sort of thing after subjecting myself to contemporary offerings that assume bad effects are a good joke. Leviathan does have some issues here—for whatever reason, Cosmatos obscures the creature with shaky editing and camerawork even after it’s been revealed, so much so that you might have to pause the movie to get a great, full-on look at Winston’s design (the Cronenbergian body horrors—melting flesh, gooey mutations, etc.—are in plain sight, at least).
With so many disparate influences (on top of Alien and The Thing, it has a streak of drive-in B-monster movies running through it) being stitched into this crazy quilt, it’s no surprise that Leviathan makes for an uneven experience—it sometimes feels like an earnest attempt to mimic the seriousness of its predecessors, yet it transforms into kind of a silly romp during its bonkers climax, where it nearly introduces the opposite of a deus-ex-machina for one of the more memorable “it’s not over yet” gags I’ve ever come across (just when you thought it was safe to emerge from the water…). It makes for a good lesson on how to embrace monster movie silliness without going completely overboard.
After spending 15 years submerged on a below-average (but still remarkably anamorphic for the era) DVD, Leviathan makes the leap to Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory. The disc’s hi-def presentation is an obvious improvement on all fronts: the transfer appears to be largely free of digital artifacts and faithfully reflects the film’s somewhat grungy, muted look, while both the stereo and 5.1 DTS-MA tracks immerse viewers in a lively soundscape. As this release isn’t part of Sceam’s Collector’s Edition series, the extras are comparatively sparse, yet still add up to more than an hour’s worth of material. The centerpiece is the 40-minute “Monster Melting Pot,” a behind-the-scenes retrospective bit featuring the effects artists that brought the creature to life. Separate interviews with stars Hector Elizondo and Ernie Hudson join the theatrical trailer in filling out the supplements. The only thing that’s missing is a similar release for Deep Star Six to accompany it on shelves just as it did 25 years ago, when it looked like Hollywood was convinced the oceans were full of monsters and aliens. Better than our current situation, where the seas have mostly inspired terrible movies. Buy it!
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