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Popcorn Fall

Popcorn Pictures

Reviewing the best (and worst) of horror, sci-fi and fantasy since 2000

  • Andrew Smith

Leviathan (1989)

"The true meaning of fear"


Days before their undersea mining contract expires, the crew of a US deep-sea mining facility discover a sunken Soviet ship, the Leviathan, in a trench. Bringing a watertight chest back on board, the crew think that they have found some sort of treasure. However when they open it, they don't realise that they are opening a Pandora's Box of mutated genes which proceeds to infect one of the crew, transforming them into a hideous creature which then proceed to kill the crew one-by-one.


Whilst James Cameron's The Abyss was in production, other studios assumed that it was going to be some 'monster-on-the-loose-in-a-confined-space' flick like Aliens but only underwater instead of space. Cameron was a rising star after Aliens and The Terminator and everyone wanted a piece of the action. Being ones to try and jump on the bandwagon, a handful of similar-themed films each featuring aquatic terrors were rushed into production in order to capitalise on the inevitable popularity. However, The Abyss was nothing like people expected it to be, especially after Aliens a couple of years earlier. So these films kind of floundered a little bit, trying to beat the other into the pool first only to find the pool had moved. Leviathan finds itself in a prominent position boasting a director hot from making a pair of Stallone action films, a great cast of famous faces and modern day effects maestro, the late Stan Winston, providing the monster. It should have added up to a lot more than the sum of its parts though.

The problem is that Leviathan comes off more like an undersea version of The Thing than a straight-up Alien clone but it's clear that the script is the combination of Scott's sci-fi classic and Carpenter's immense Antarctic shocker. It's a film which has been assembled courtesy of the best pieces of both films just without the required glue to hold it all together. Outer space. The Antarctic. Underwater. Three places where help isn't coming, the feeling of isolation is paramount and no one can hear you scream. Leviathan starts exactly like Alien with the blue-collared crew going about their day-to-day business before they encounter a situation which screams "avoid" at all costs. Then the film switches across to The Thing mode with the crew finding a nasty shape-shifting organism which has already wiped out a like-minded foreign power and proceeds to secretly infect one of the US crew. From there on, I'll avoid the comparisons between the films. After all, Alien itself wasn't an original idea. The only thing that matters is whether or not the films are any good regardless of whether it's recycling ideas from another film.

In this respect, Leviathan does an admirable job of paving its own way. Over $20 million was sunk into this flick so Leviathan can't argue that it was short of cash. There are some highly impressive sets and the undersea facility looks stunning. Sadly, the confined setting isn't fully utilized and there's not a whole lot of tension or atmosphere cranked out within the bowels of this metallic, gloomy facility. The script follow standard conventions, introducing a diverse crew of male, female, white, black and Hispanic characters, and of various ages, so that there's at least one or two characters that people should be able to associate with. There's plenty of chemistry between the characters, though a few side plots are quickly discarded when the monster begins to wreak havoc. Despite this, director George P. Cosmatos doesn't manage to make the situation feel serious. There's little real tension, no claustrophobia or paranoia and no sense of impending doom even though the characters are stuck at the bottom of the sea. Leviathan becomes a paint-by-numbers exercise to get from one set piece to the next without stopping to think about how to construct them for maximum effect.

Leviathan's biggest strength is its all-star cast. Robocop himself, Peter Weller, stars as the commander of the vessel. There are supporting roles for Ernie Hudson (the black ghostbuster), Richard Crenna (Stallone's superior officer in the Rambo films), Daniel Stern (in his pre-Home Alone days), Hector Elizondo, Meg Foster and Amanda Pays. Whilst it's safe to assume that no actor will be placing this at the top of their credits list, they're decent enough for what the limited script asks them to do. Hudson in particular makes more of an impression in his role here than he did across the first two Ghostbusters films. Don’t get too attached to any of them however as their shelf-life is very limited.

Whoever was cast in the film was always going to play second fiddle to the monster though. Stan Winston is the man pulling the strings with the special effects and comes up with an intriguing and original creature which doesn't just look like another tall, black-skinned monster with sharp teeth (i.e. Giger's unforgettable alien creation). In the days before CGI, the creature is brought to life all through practical make-up effects. You don't get to see an awful lot of it which is a bit of a shame as it looks very real and imposing in the scenes that it's in. However, later in the film, it begins to change size and shape a little too much based upon whatever the script requires it to do. Its final reveal is overly disappointing and is a bit of a poor model from Industrial Light and Magic. Can’t all be winners I suppose! The creature also has the ability to regenerate itself and contaminate others, and sets about absorbing the crew in grisly fashion. It takes about thirty minutes for the creature to start causing havoc and there's some solid moments of gore as the process of absorption gets messy at times. The better make-up effects are those used when the characters are begin to change, such as a row of teeth and mouth appearing on someone’s hand. But then we’re getting into The Thing territory again.


Final Verdict

Something of a minor cult favourite amongst sci-fi-horror fans, Leviathan is a film which doesn’t have a shred of originality running through its body and promises a lot more than it really delivers. But it’s a polished production with enough goo, gore and gratuitous hamming up by some of the cast to keep it entertaining, rarely dull and with an odd moment of surprise and shock.



Director(s): George P. Cosmatos

Writer(s): David Webb Peoples (story), Jeb Stuart (screenplay)

Actor(s): Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, Amanda Pays, Daniel Stern, Ernie Hudson, Michael Carmine, Lisa Eilbacher

Duration: 98 mins


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