Blu-ray Review – LEVIATHAN (1989)

I admire movies that can be summed up in one simple phrase, as it makes writing about them so much easier.  You don’t have to delve into the deep, twisty-turny nature of the film, carefully considering what would count as a surprising plot point you wouldn’t want to have known going in.  You don’t have to spend three paragraphs explaining what it’s all about before getting into the audience it’s intended for and how it manages to satisfy them.  You can cut straight to the chase.

1989’s LEVIATHAN is “ALIEN, but underwater.”

That’s pretty much all you’d need to know to gauge your interest level in the film.  Do you want to see ALIEN, but underwater?  If so, you will be the potential audience for LEVIATHAN.  Sure, it’s not exactly like ALIEN – instead of a work-for-hire hauling team played by familiar character actors, isolated in a remote location and sent there by an unfeeling corporation whose motives become more apparent as the film progresses, who encounters a deadly entity with pointy teeth that invades their bodies and starts killing them off one by one, it’s a work-for-hire mining team played by familiar character actors, isolated in a remote location and sent there by an unfeeling corporation whose motives become more apparent as the film progresses, who encounters a deadly entity with pointy teeth that invades their bodies and starts killing them off one by one.

Also, it’s underwater.  And instead of an android, we have cold, unfeeling Meg Foster representing the corporation via video chat.  There’s miners, they’re on a deep sea station, they discover a wrecked Russian ship (named Leviathan) and inadvertently take an invading presence on board.  Chaos ensues.

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It’s also, of course, not as well-crafted and polished as ALIEN, though LEVIATHAN is certainly one of the more polished “ALIEN, but underwater films” that were released in 1989.  This may seem like a backhanded compliment, but the era spawned a number of films set beneath the sea, including DEEP STAR SIX, ENDLESS DESCENT, LORDS OF THE DEEP and Antonio Margheriti’s ALIEN FROM THE DEEP, not to mention THE EVIL BELOW and the Dutch DYKKET, which weren’t really ALIEN rip-offs, but still blended into the underwater antics of the time.  And, of course, there was James Cameron’s THE ABYSS, which is a bit more like “CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, but underwater,” but still a perfectly fine film.

Directed by George P. Cosmatos (whose notable genre flicks include THE CASSANDRA CROSSING, COBRA and the paranoia rat catcher pic OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN, the latter featuring LEVIATHAN’s Peter Weller), written by David Peoples (12 MONKEYS) and Jeb Stuart (DIE HARD), and starring a cast of familiar faces that rivals ALIEN’s (beyond Weller, there’s Ernie Hudson, Richard Crenna, Daniel Stern, Hector Elizondo and Amanda Pays, and if any of these people need introductions, well, you’re on the internet already, bucko), LEVIATHAN should have been more than one of a bunch of “ALIEN, but underwater” films – it should have been THEALIEN, but underwater” film.  It’s even got special effects from Stan Winston and a solid Jerry Goldsmith score that utilizes whale sounds to add to the creepy atmosphere!

And LEVIATHAN certainly does have its strong points.  The strongest moments in the film are the character bits in the beginning of the film, great little scenes that give the talented performers something to do before all hell breaks loose.  Geologist-in-charge Peter Weller reads “The One-Minute Manager” and has to rehearse his orders because he’s uncomfortable with leading.  Sex-crazed Sixpack (Daniel Stern) plays pranks and makes inappropriate comments.  Elizondo’s union steward constantly chides the captain to maintain the contractually obligated rules when he’s not ranting about how terrible the world is, and the character would probably seem insufferable if it weren’t for Elizondo’s matter-of-fact delivery.  The ship’s doctor (Richard Crenna) shirks his duties and is generally incompetent out of laziness.  They’re well-rounded characters that have clearly been around each other far too long, and the performers (clearly having fun) coupled with some crisp dialogue make for a genuinely entertaining first third that doesn’t  feel like it’s just biding its time, waiting for the monster the show up.

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The problems with LEVIATHAN, weirdly, don’t start until the monster shows up.  Stan Winston’s craftsmanship is certainly apparent on screen, and the creature, which takes various forms throughout the film depending on who or what it has most recently absorbed, oozes and moves with ease no matter what form it takes.  LEVIATHAN has more than a fair share of solid FX work, made all the more obvious by Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray transfer.

Unfortunately, the monster itself never really quite connects as a presence.  It’s certainly fine for a creature to take on multiple forms, but LEVIATHAN’s critter just seems like a misconceived mesh of ALIEN and THE THING that doesn’t feel like anything more than a bunch of assorted ideas.  Cosmatos tends to shy away from showing the fully mutated monster until the climax, so we get bits and pieces of the intruder throughout the film, and while they look good, the mutant figure is so shrouded in mystery, theory and shadow that you never quite get the sense of what it’s all about.  Even in the final moments when it’s actually given form, it’s tough to reconcile the creature on display with the one that’s been making its way through the cast, resulting in an ALIEN retread that doesn’t approach the material with enough new, full-formed concepts to make it memorable.

A lack of complete ideas and some awkward moments aside (Pays in particular seems often strained to interact convincingly with the peril around her), LEVIATHAN is still a fairly solid film, one perfectly suited for an evening’s entertainment.  Scream’s new 1080p transfer, retaining the theatrical 2.34:1 aspect ratio, does wonders for the look of the film, and if the “underwater” segments (not actually shot underwater) are not entirely convincing, it’s mostly due to the action on screen not being believably slow.  It’s a definite improvement over the previous DVD transfer from MGM, as Cosmatos and cinematographer Alex Thomson (THE KEEP, ALIEN3) made a solid effort to depict the claustrophobic atmosphere of the environment.

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If the transfer isn’t enough to get you in, Scream Factory’s usual batch of excellent special features should do it.  A 40 minute retrospective documentary highlighting the special effects is certainly noteworthy, including discussion of the film’s underwater suits that caused issues due to the fact that they needed to be able to used by any of the film’s cast.  Two interviews with cast members are also included, one with the highly entertaining Elizondo and a second with Hudson, who mentions that one of the reasons for the film’s less-than-stellar reputation is the fate of his character.  (In normal situations, I’d chalk this up to egotism, but I agree with him here, as his fate in the film not only feels like a last-minute decision, but it isn’t shot well either.)  A theatrical trailer rounds out the features, along with trailers for other Scream Factory releases.

LEVIATHAN may not be the “ALIEN, but underwater” film to end all “ALIEN, but underwater” films, but it’s certainly a perfectly passable one, a no-frills creature feature with a solid cast, fine special effects and a tone that allows any humor to come naturally from the characters instead of treating the whole premise as tongue-in-cheek.  It may ultimately become mixed in your head with similar films of the same nature, but for 103 minutes, it’s still a perfectly serviceable ride.

Jon Abrams

Editor-In-Chief at Daily Grindhouse
Jon Abrams is a New York-based writer, cartoonist, and committed cinemaniac whose complete work and credits can be found at his site, Demon’s Resume. You can contact him on Twitter as @JonZilla___.
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