Leviathan (1989) Leviathan (1989) ***

     How’s this for a concise summation of my taste in movies? In 1989, when theaters were bizarrely inundated with sci-fi creature features set on the ocean floor, The Abyss was the one I didn’t go to see. What can I say? “Close Encounters of the Third Kind underwater” sounded like a real bore, but “Alien underwater”— which was more or less the mood of James Cameron’s main marine competitors— was so far up my alley that I ponied up for it in two different iterations. Mind you, one result of watching DeepStar Six and Leviathan within eight or nine weeks of each other was that it took no time at all for them to become inextricably tangled up in my head. Naturally, the only way to sort out which one was really which was to revisit both, and so here I go again. This time, though, I’m leaving a paper trail in the form of these reviews, so that next year, when the two aquatic monster mashes have started blurring together once more, it’ll be easy enough to remind myself, “No, no— Leviathan was the one with the sunken ship and the nefarious medical experiment. DeepStar Six was the one with the killer crustacean and the idiots who keep making their own situation worse at every turn. Also, Leviathan was better at remembering that it was supposed to be a monster movie.”

     When I say that Leviathan is Alien underwater, I mean that in an extraordinary amount of detail (although there’s quite a bit of The Thing in here as well), beginning with the work that brings the protagonists to the bottom of the sea. The eight men and women led by geologist Steven Beck (Peter Weller, from Naked Lunch and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension) are miners, extracting the buried wealth of an environment lethally hostile to humans for the benefit of a corporation whose leaders care no more about their wellbeing than the executives of Weyland-Yutani— at least if we can take Ms. Martin (Meg Foster, from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Shrunken Heads), Beck’s immediate boss, as indicative of her colleagues’ attitudes. In particular, Beck and his people are digging silver ore out of a vein in or near the Puerto Rican Trench. It’s a dangerous, stressful job at the best of times, and matters are made considerably worse by the condition of both Shack 7, their base on the ocean floor (which is aging into dilapidation), and their staff physician, Dr. Glen Thompson (Richard Crenna, of Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), a high-functioning alcoholic whose functioning has grown progressively worse as their assignment in the benthic depths wears on. It’s day 87 out of 90 when we come aboard, so you can expect Thompson to be quite a mess indeed. In fact, our introduction to the team comes when a crewmember called De Jesus (*Batteries Not Included’s Michael Carmine) suffers a dive-suit malfunction, and nearly dies thanks to the doctor’s dissipation. Everyone— Elizabeth Williams (Amanda Pays, of The Kindred and Spacejacked), Bridget Bowman (Lisa Eibacher, from 10 to Midnight and This House Possessed), G.P. Cobb (The Fan’s Hector Elizondo), Justin Jones (Ernie Hudson, from Shark Attack and Hood of Horror), and Buzz “Sixpack” Parrish (Daniel Stern, of Get Crazy and C.H.U.D.), along with the three men previously mentioned— is glad to be so close to the end of their stint beneath the sea.

     Another potentially deadly accident occurs the next day, when Sixpack slips and falls deeper into the trench while he and Williams are out digging by themselves. She comes to his rescue, but while they’re down in the yet-unexplored region of the abyss, they unexpectedly discover the wreck of a Soviet merchant ship called LevyafanLeviathan. Sixpack, being the kind of irresponsible putz that he is, goes aboard without authorization, and retrieves a safe from within the captain’s cabin. His and Williams’s unplanned excursion brings to light a whole slew of curiosities. The Leviathan’s hull is torn open below the waterline in a manner more consistent with a torpedo hit than with any normal maritime accident. Sickbay is filled with skeletons, several of which are bizarrely deformed. And the videotaped log inside the captain’s safe— which the multilingual Dr. Thompson makes himself useful for once by translating— breaks off in the middle of an ominous passage describing an inexplicable sickness ravaging the crew. That, presumably, goes some way toward explaining the rest of the safe’s contents, which consist almost entirely of personnel files marked “DECEASED.” Things start looking even weirder when a computer search for the sunken ship’s registry information reveals that she’s supposed to be on active duty as an auxiliary to the Red Banner Baltic Fleet; officially, the Leviathan is reposing at a quay in Leningrad.

     There was one other thing in the safe, too, which Sixpack pocketed before handing its contents over to Beck— a hip flask full of expensive vodka. Incredibly, that’s what makes the Leviathan’s mysterious fate a life-threatening problem for the Shack 7 crew, instead of just something weird to ponder at idle moments during their final 36 hours on the seafloor. It’ll be some while before Thompson has either the time or a reason to put all this together, but it seems the Russian freighter had been the venue for a cruel experiment in genetic engineering. The Soviet navy had evidently been looking to increase the effectiveness of its special forces troops by creating a breed of men capable of surviving underwater indefinitely without dive suits or breathing apparatus. Of course, it would have been difficult to recruit volunteers to be turned into gill-men, but what Russian regime has ever concerned itself much with the consent of the governed? The high command just had some scientists cook up a virus to edit human DNA in the desired manner, and slipped it into the Leviathan sailors’ vodka rations. I ask you, though— does torpedoing the experimental ship with everyone aboard, while simultaneously pretending that it’s still in service back home, sound like the conclusion to a successful test of the gill-man concept? No. And what happens to Sixpack and Bowman when they drink the tainted vodka is a far cry indeed from them becoming prime candidates to be the first ever Navy EELs.

     At first, Sixpack just feels like he has the worst hangover of his life, but by the time he goes to see Thompson to call in sick for his last day on the job, he’s got a fever, the shakes, and a skin rash that looks like his body is trying to grow scales. The doctor’s examination of tissue from one of the lesions turns up a virus he’s never seen before, together with evidence that something has gone haywire in the patient’s genes. And then in a matter of hours, Sixpack is dead. Thompson advises Beck to keep that much at least on the downlow, and orders everyone to come in for a physical after their shifts. He tells them all that Sixpack has fallen seriously ill with something unusual, and that he’s afraid it may be contagious— which is, after all, the truth, if rather less than the whole truth. Bowman is the only one with any symptoms, but she slits her wrists in the shower before Thompson has a chance to begin trying to treat her. That’s because she happened to see not only Sixpack’s corpse during her visit to the infirmary, but also what it was starting to turn into. Fearing an epidemic of… well, whatever that is… Beck and Thompson decide to dump Sixpack and Bowman out via the sealock, cultural niceties and union rules be damned. The trouble is, the two afflicted crewmembers aren’t so much dead as undergoing complete metamorphosis, and one of them revives in the midst of being expelled. The rest of the Shack 7 crew don’t realize this at first, but one of the indescribably mutated creature’s legs was severed by the workings of the sealock, and remains aboard the station even now. And since one of the things this biological abomination can do is to regenerate whole new bodies from detached appendages, that means it’s going to be a busy last night down there in the shack.

     Leviathan is easily the best product of its year’s freak bumper crop of movies about strange goings-on at the bottom of the sea, but I suspect it would have turned out even better had it been made about four years earlier. By 1989, Hollywood had fully metabolized James Cameron’s once-innovative application of action movie techniques to the old sci-fi monster flick formula, to the point where films of this sort became more or less obliged to end with a noisy, busy running gunfight through some labyrinthine structure in danger of exploding at any moment. One viewing of Cobra should be enough to convince you that hypertrophic 80’s style of action was apt to bring out director George P. Cosmatos’s silly side, and indeed that’s just what happens in Leviathan when the last humans alive aboard Shack 7 decide to go on the attack. To be sure, that turn of events brings out the writers’ silly sides as well, so we shouldn’t give Cosmatos all the blame. Like, it isn’t his fault that the race against the clock concerns something that couldn’t possibly be timed with the degree of precision depicted, or that the eminently predictable “surprise” appearance of a monster on the ocean surface after the survivors think they’re safe is 70% as stupid and implausible as DeepStar Six’s version of the same scene. What we undoubtedly can fault him for, however, is the counterproductive macho swagger which the film takes on during the endgame. The last time Cosmatos pitted Peter Weller against a monster, the outcome felt much more genuinely in doubt, even though his opponent was nothing but an atypically big and ornery Manhattan alley rat. A Lovecraftian amalgam of all the nastiest things in the benthic biome should not be less frightening than a household pest!

     Until that botched third act, however, I quite enjoyed Leviathan. For one thing, it has a late-80’s B-movie dream cast— not a stunt cast, like we so often see today, but just a bunch of reliable, capable character actors who are always a pleasure to see turn up in anything. Peter Weller is both charismatic enough to be believable as a natural leader and self-effacing enough to be credible as someone who doesn’t see himself as one. Ernie Hudson confirms everyone’s suspicion that he’d been squandered in Ghostbusters, making himself a vital enough piece of the Leviathan ensemble that you’re sure to get pissed off at how the film’s conclusion does him dirty. And Daniel Stern remains one of my favorite 1980’s D-list louts. It was an especially apt choice, too, to cast the ice-eyed Meg Foster as the ruthless corner-office vampire overseeing the doomed operation from afar. And speaking of Ms. Martin, Leviathan is also one of the rare Alien clones to preserve something of the original template’s class consciousness, giving the mvoie some extra layers to appreciate even when it starts to lose its grip toward the end. Writers David Peoples and Jeb Stuart— which is to say a Blade Runner guy and a Die Hard guy— put the business practices of Tri-Oceanic Mining to some interesting and unexpected uses, too, like when Williams (who receives some of her compensation in company stock) uses her portfolio account login to get around the two-way information blackout that Martin imposes to cover her own ass once she realizes how far out of hand things have gotten down in Shack 7. The mature form of the monsters is great, even if it probably rates as merely a B-game effort from the wizards at the Stan Winston creature shop. And because the monsters seem to retain at least some of the consciousness of the humans they once were, there’s a tragic quality to them that one rarely encounters in this subgenre. Imagine if Kane’s mind had been trapped within, but had no control over, the space monster’s body in Alien, and you’ll have some idea what I mean. The main reason why I’m so hard on Leviathan’s concluding half-hour is because it had been so damned good up to then.

 

 

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