Monday, 21 March 2011

VHS Quest #4. Leviathan (George P. Cosmatos, 1989)

Alien (Scott, 1979) is relocated underwater for Leviathan (1989)

I don't remember the exact quote, but I believe somebody once asked why anyone would ever want to explore space when there's still so much territory left unexplored and unexplained here on Earth - especially in the deepest regions of our oceans? It's part of the reason why I could never get along with the bland, uncharacteristic deep-space setting of Alien (Scott, 1979) - which this film basically remakes underwater - and why filmmakers around this time were starting to shift their ideas to the deep-sea; James Cameron's The Abyss (1989) was released the same year, and both come off the back of Deep Star Six (Cunningham, 1989). Sadly though, Leviathan is a very routine affair with an awful screenplay and some wooden performances from a B-movie cast - Peter Weller, Daniel Stern and Ernie Hudson are all likable, but won't be troubling the Academy anytime soon. It's a pretty entertaining flick, and certainly builds atmosphere and establishes relationships better than most of todays slick, wham-bam popcorn entertainments, but there's really no excuse for Leviathan being quite as unremarkable and trite as it is.

For one the group dynamic is nowhere near as interesting as it should be, mostly consisting of clichéd cutouts - the disenchanted skipper, American eye candy, bombastic ladies man and the token black guy - and like Alien the film turns the 'last girl' standing genre trope on its head to force the once enfeebled female into an all-action heroine; here though she's decidedly less blue collar and takes the form of a hot English toff, who gets her own obligatory shower sequence in white undies - less feminist then, and more just posh totty. It's not as if Ripley didn't spend the last act in her underwear either and the character here (played by Amanda Pays) isn't exactly exploited - it's just that she seems more like a swimsuit model than a deep-sea miner. She's not alone in the last act but Leviathan is clearly nodding its head to better, more successful blockbusters. But the biggest flaw is that the film is just a little dull when we get to the action stakes...

The creature effects are done by Stan Winston Studios, so the pedigree is good:. Indeed practical effects will always have the advantage over CGI for actually existing within the frame and having a physical presence - slime will always beat pixels, I don't care what you say. And the effects here, while not as good as those in Alien, are really effective for the most part. But Rambo II (1985) director Cosmatos just doesn't have the visual flair or control to handle the derivative action material, which also greatly references (read: steals from) James Cameron's Aliens (1986). And despite the quality of the effects work when the creature is revealed it just looks silly; like a fish hybrid with human heads poking from its body, recalling Freddy Krueger's nightmarish chest at the finale of The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988). The prawnish monster is only glimpsed in brief flashes of 'terror' and is defeated all too easily in the ultimate double-anticlimax also involving some sharks, and one of the laziest one-liners I've ever heard ("say ahhh motherfucker!"). Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Leviathan is the score by master composer Jerry Goldsmith who turns in some rousing, memorable tracks that underpin the action with a sense of atmosphere and adventure that Cosmatos can't muster as director. Skip the film and buy the soundtrack album then - you'll be richly rewarded.

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