Leviathan, 1989. Directed by George P. Cosmatos. Written by David Webb Peoples. Starring Peter Weller, Amanda Pays, Ernie Hudson, Daniel Stern, Richard Crenna, Hector Elizondo, Meg Foster.
I have watched this movie a lot. This came out at roughly the same time as two other films set at the bottom of the ocean, DeepStar Six (directed by Friday the 13th‘s Sean S. Cunningham) and The Abyss (directed by James Cameron). Of these films, The Abyss is obviously the best of the bunch (did you think I was going to say this film? I love this flick, but I’m not deluded about it’s cinematic quality or standing), but this one is solidly in second place.
With Leviathan, we’re at the end of a 90 day work stint at an undersea mining facility where the union crew is pulling in silver. Geologist, Beck (Peter Weller) is in charge of the unruly crew (consulting the Ten Minute Manager in between wrangling the overtly cavalier Doc, various disasters, and the squabbling crew). After an initial emergency, Beck offers everyone a day off if they pull extra hours pulling maintenance shifts; a practical joke sends Six-Pack and Willie (Stern and Pays) out for a shift. During their shift, Six-Pack goes over the edge into a trench and finds a scuttled Russian ship named Leviathan. Once a safe with some contraband is brought back to the underwater shack everything goes to hell.
Each of the films have their menaces, The Abyss plays with the expectation by having the discovered aliens be benevolent and the threat be human, while DeepStar Six has an monstrous alien. Leviathan sort of combines them by making the creature a genetic experiment got out of control and then got buried. Until, of course, the contraband is consumed by a couple of our heroes. One of the best things about this film is how it plays with body horror in a very interesting way. The creature that Stan Winston created (yep, that Stan Winston) is based on marine life, so there is a pile on of fish characteristics and human. The initial symptoms are like a virus with a skin rash that appears like fish scales, then after death the flesh dissolves and reconstitutes itself, combining with other infected tissue, or regenerating when separated. Yes, the final monster is a giant rubber suit, but the practical effects are still pretty fun (the earlier transition SFX are very effective) and hold up better than bad CGI (remember what The Rock looked like in The Mummy Returns?)
The script from Peoples (Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, Unforgiven) has uneven moments and some rough conversation spots, but each of the characters is distinct (and well acted by the stellar cast). The problem with so many of these movies is that they require people to make dumb choices, or at a pivotal point, act out of character, but this film goes the route of Alien and makes the character very good at what they do, which is not deal with a genetic monster. The biggest leaps come from the explanations, and we lean on Doc and questionable 1980’s “future” technology” for that (the film is set in 2027). The challenge to survival comes from the remote location, threats of extreme surface weather, and an unfeeling corporate behemoth depicted by Meg Foster and her icy blue eyes.
This is not a perfect movie, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s also on the cusp of the horror genre, leaning in a little heavier on SciFi/ Action (the movie ends a little more triumphantly than a solid horror film would). It’s fun, too, to compare and contrast similar films that arrive in theaters at the same time. In the case of these movies, it’s three underwater “monster” movies. We’ve seen it with giant asteroids (Armageddon/ Deep Impact), volcanos (Volcano/ Dante’s Peak), animated films (Bug’s Life/ Antz) and with storytelling exercises it’s always interesting to see where productions focus their attention and energy, and sometimes how different budgets effect the final productions. Perhaps that will be an interesting essay in the future.
More later …