To preface this, there’s something I’m wanting to try out. Starting with this post and possibly with future ones, I’m going to hyperlink the out-of-the-way movies that I reference in my posts (that is, if a version of them has been uploaded online). After all, the main reason I blog about them is out of love, so why not share them with my readers? Now I know it’s not exactly legal that someone has uploaded some movie to YouTube, but seeing as how I didn’t do it (nor would I ever), I personally don’t see the harm. Besides, a lot of times I’m sure some of you (like myself) will often endeavor to find DVDs or Blu-Rays of said films after seeing crappy versions of them online. Prepare to be disappointed though, as many of the VHS rips uploaded are the only copies known, that is until the likes of Shout Factory or Blue Underground manage to get them remastered.
From the Don’t Get Me Started department: It’s 4:30 in the morning, I happen to wake up and guess what’s playing on cable? Only my all-time fave underwater Alien rip-off — Leviathan. See kids, way back in the late 1980s (1989, to be exact), there was this weird trifecta of “underwater action thrillers”, all being an offshoot of the rampant Alien ripoffs of the 1980s, but reset in the equally alien setting of the deep ocean. They were (by popularity) James Cameron’s The Abyss, Leviathan and Sean (Friday the 13th) Cunningham’s Deepstar Six. Don’t get me wrong — I dearly love The Abyss (the scene where Ed Harris resuscitates Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio gets me every time), and Deepstar Six ranks high among my favorite Alien clones (which include Corman classics like Forbidden World — see here for my thoughts on that), but Leviathan will always be my favorite of this peculiar sub-genre.
But why? Is it the late, great Jerry Goldsmith’s score? Maybe, although he sort of seems to be phoning it in (compared to even his Hollow Man or Deep Rising scores, which have comparably much more bang for the buck. I mean who doesn’t want to take a power boat out on the waves blasting the Deep Rising theme — unfortunately not until about 1:30 on this video –? Am I really alone in this?). Is it David Peoples and Jeb Stuart’s script? Not really, since it’s an unabashed Alien retread: a schlubby bunch of deep-sea miners encounter a foreign (as opposed to alien) wreck, which is explored with ultimately less than desired results. Instead of a xenomorph we end up with a Stan Winston-ized metamutant, whose death the late Roy Scheider might find amusing. The screenplay is clever when it wants to be, but for the most part stays safe in shallow waters (nyuk).
What about the acting on this voyage? This is where things get interesting. We’ve got none other than Buckaroo Banzai himself, Peter Weller as the lead, doing what Peter Weller does best — offer a stoic, if somewhat wooden performance, punctuated with wry delivery and tired expression. Don’t get me wrong. I love the guy, but it’s no coincidence he got cast as the lead in RoboCop. It oddly enough works in this case, since he’s the one most everyone’s looking to for some sense of order when it hits the fan. Calm and reserved, until driven to shout in less than quiet moments, Weller holds his own in Leviathan. As for the rest of the cast, there’s veteran actors like Richard Crenna (best known to most as Rambo’s ally Trautman, but I love him best in Wait Until Dark and the cheesefest horror flick The Evil) and Hector Elizondo, personal fave Daniel Stern (desperately summoning his inner redneck five years after his seminal role as “The Reverend” in the schlock masterpiece C.H.U.D.), the adorable Amanda Pays (who starred in The Kindred) and the foxy Lisa Eilbacher (check her out in This House Possessed from her early TV days, with *zoinks* Parker Stevenson!). Then there’s Michael Carmine, who I mainly know from this film as DeJesus, the beans and rice gourmet who has a serious skiing fetish. Oh wait, there’s Meg Foster, who plays the same ice-cold bitch she did a year earlier in John Carpenter’s anti-fascist manifesto They Live (which I will blog about soon, for sure). They all do an admirable enough job with the crappy script, making the best of their amiable (except in Foster’s case) but stereotypical characters.
But the star of this film, outside the conventional limitations of role and script, is Ernie Hudson as Justin Jones, this film’s answer to Yaphet Kotto’s Parker in Alien. See what I mean about a retread? But no matter. Hudson (best known from the two Ghostbusters films, which he was between at this point in his career) knows what he really is within the scope of the movie — he is the Voice of the Audience, our prickly representative in this doomed underwater scenario, and he works his position to the forefront with ease. His performance gives an otherwise predictable movie a satiric edge, imbuing the Angry Black Guy stereotype with a sly intelligence and wit. Mind you, the script does have a few of its better moments with his character, like the following which takes place just before the film’s climax:
MARTIN (on monitor, communicating from the surface): I know you’ve all gone through hell —
JONES: Gone? Bitch, we’re still here!
But it’s Hudson’s delivery that aces even these lines with the same hint of incredulity that we as the viewers are experiencing, without an obvious breaking of the fourth wall. It’s like a bad movie with its own built-in MST3K episode. Really, what could be better than that?
As mentioned before, the late Stan Winston, best known for his work on James Cameron’s Aliens and Terminator films, as well as Jurassic Park (and whose influence was sorely missed in the recent Jurassic World) provides the special prosthetic and animatronic effects for Leviathan, and honestly I wasn’t impressed. I don’t know what possible budget and time constraints he and his team might’ve been under, but what would usually be an exciting element of fantasy films from this era is ultimately a disappointment here. One of the films Leviathan is often compared to is Carpenter’s magnificent 1982 remake of The Thing (on which Winston assisted effects lead Rob Bottin), and such a comparison is very unfair. While Bottin’s work on that movie was wildly creative and imaginative (in my opinion the only other effects artist to come close to Bottin’s extreme genius is Joji Tani, otherwise known as Screaming Mad George), Winston’s work in Leviathan is merely adequate. We get a lurking rump roast which manages to sprout a tentacle at one point, and a final monster that looks like it could’ve come out of an early Roger Corman flick. Mind you that’s not an insult, but certainly not what should’ve come from the likes of Winston.
One avenue of excitement for me was the production design work of Ron Cobb. Cobb is best known as a artist and cartoonist, but his design work on Star Wars, Alien, Conan the Barbarian and Total Recall (not to mention John Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star) has its own legion of fans, yours truly included. His unmistakable influence was present both within and without the fictional Tri-Oceanic deep-sea mining installation Shack 7 — right down to the underwater basketball goal.
Finally, the glue which holds all the disparate elements together was the late director George Cosmatos. Best known for Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cosmatos’ prowess with action is matched by a keen eye for drama. One standout scene is that of Eilbacher’s character Bowman realizing her mutagenic fate, and committing suicide.
As could be discerned from above, Leviathan tries to be several things at once, but still manages to define itself. It’s awareness of being an adjunct to superior films is notable, in particular with Hudson’s performance and overall with the script and direction. By no means as sly as the collaborations of director Joe Dante and scribe John Sayles earlier in the decade, it regardless finds a middle ground between straight-up parody and self promotion. While visually it could’ve been more, the overall production is slick enough, and the cast is memorable. Not great cinema by any standards, but Leviathan is one of those movies that manages to entertain in ways that such films cannot, like the consolatory joy one gets from a microwaved burrito as opposed to a steak dinner. It may not be for everyone, but in the right situation, and at the right time (like 4:30 in the morning), it surely satisfies.