by Jack Sommersby
This film was released after the OK "Deep Star Six" and before the hit-and-miss "The Abyss", and it's better than both of those.There are those who'll automatically dismiss the underwater horror tale Leviathan as a needless Alien clone, and priggishly so, because the film is in fact superbly made, exciting, suspenseful, and beautifully sustained from start to finish. True, it's a derivation of Alien, but what's truly relevant is whether it's entertaining or not; and luckily the director who pulled duty here, George P. Cosmatos, is a born entertainer. His most financially-successful films are the Sylvester Stallone box-office hits Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra, both of which weren't exactly booming with high-IQ writing but were executed with color and aplomb; Cosmatos demonstrated an appreciation for genre and an ability to work within it to get maximum results -- the overall wholes were short on originality but plentiful in panache, which is more than enough for films that wish not to transcend genre but to luxuriate in their cliches by giving them some well-engineered punch. His 1993 Tombstone was a handsome epic that was infinitely superior to the bigger-budgeted, more expensively-cast Wyatt Earp released a year later because you could sense a director at work who "connected" to the same subject with more filmmaking fervor as opposed to Lawrence Kasdan, who seemed to be making his bland, enervating film while on autopilot. And even in the junky political thriller The Shadow Conspiracy there was Cosmatos directing with agility and a sense of pace, giving the proceedings more verve than it had any right to possess. But the film that's his most undervalued, and the one that most parallels his work in Leviathan, is his first American film, Of Unknown Origin. In it, harried, anal-retentive yuppie Peter Weller found himself doing battle with an oversized, malicious-minded rodent in his prized three-story New York town house. Shooting in this confined setting sparked levels of ingenuity and imagination in this born director, who trotted out deliciously-staged set pieces that relied more on thoughtful tact than cheaply-shot "Boo!" moments. Which brings us back to Leviathan, which is also shot in a confined main setting but moves forth with an assured narrative rhythm that ascertains that we're in the hands of a director who knows exactly what he's doing. How refreshing.
"One of the Best of the 'Alien' Clones"
The setting in question is a deep-sea mining facility sixteen-thousand feet below sea level that's populated by an eight-person crew extracting silver and other metals. When the film opens, it's day eighty-seven of a ninety-day tour, and the can't-wait-to-get-topside crew are going about their business when one of them in the water experiences an oxygen-and-temperature malfunction in their suit, causing him to hyperventilate and approach death. Already, even before the main conflict has been established, this manifests into a nerve-jangling episode, where the uncertain leader of the operation, without the doctor in the operation's room as required, must collect his wits to direct the man to safety before it's too late, and the razor-sharp editing and Jerry Goldsmith's adept score arise palpitations in the viewer. The crew is mainly genial but somewhat cynical over their leader, a geologist who they feel is unqualified for the job and who runs the place without much leeway or humor; this of course sets off a mental alarm, and we know by near film's end the leader will have grown into a more decisive, braver human being better suited to battle the monstrosity he finds himself faced with. Speaking of that, when the crew inadvertently stumbles upon a downed Russian ship (which looks to have been torpedoed by its own country), upon taking back a safe full of captain's logs and maps and the like, they also bring into the facility a flask of what's assumed to be vodka. When two of the crew sneak some sips from it, the next day they're not for the better: complaining of the chills and experiencing horrendous skin rashes, they know these are no hangovers. One of them dies, the other, upon seeing the gruesome death of the other, commits suicide; and their bodies, going through genetic alterations, together morph into an ever-changing, fang-covered life-form that needs human blood to survive, is quintessentially violent, and relentlessly stalks the crew. To make matter worse, the topside general manager of the company has informed them that they can't be emergency-evacuated as hoped, that there's an approaching hurricane and extraction is impossible and has to be delayed for at least twelve to forty-eight hours. This leaves the crew, armed with nothing more extravagant than power saws and flamethrowers to combat an ever-growing beast that's capable of regeneration and absorbs the knowledge of its victims, giving it the mental capacity to know the outline and intricacies of the facility as well as its prey.
Kudos to Ron Cobb, the conceptual artist of both Alien and Aliens, who's the production designer here and gives the facility a tube-like, spidery interior that affords the monster many a hiding place to strike out from. Taking its cue from Alien, the design isn't bright and roomy but dank and claustrophobic, so when the action percolates the film boasts a real you-are-there vitality that keeps the audience as apprehensive and on their toes as the characters. Also contributing to the eerie feel is the evocative cinematography of the great Alex Thomson, whose lighting gives us shadows of the creature lurking around corners in quick glimpses and in dark rooms that give us enough visual information while retaining a good deal of mystery. Granted, the screenplay by David Webb Peoples (Oscar-winner for Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven) and Jeb Stuart (writer-director of the undervalued serial-killer thriller Switchback) isn't substantial enough to act as the most creative springboard for the talents-that-be in the technical department, but Cobb and Thomson have carried out their assignments as if they were involved in an award-worthy production, and their stalwart work more than shows. Overall, though, the writing isn't D-grade stuff. It follows the basic alien-on-the-loose template but incorporates some nice touches of its own, like in having the hero secretly reading the nonfiction book "The Minute Manager" to help hone his managerial skills, and by keeping us in suspense whether the initially-seeming duplicitous doctor, who's our ears to the intricacies and nature of the beast, can be trusted. There'll be those accusing the film of being light on character, but the screenplay, like that of Alien and John Carpenter's The Thing, gives us enough information so we know just enough about the characters to suffice; even though they're not given soul-bearing speeches that'd come off as prepping for Oscar consideration (which, of course, would be completely inappropriate given this type of film), they're a three-dimensional, well-differentiated bunch who earn our sympathy and sustain interest. And the first-rate cast is to be commended for not laying down on the job in roles that aren't exactly chock-full of Shakespearean richness. Richard Crenna, Amanda Pays, Daniel Stern, Ernie Hudson, Lisa Eilbacher, and Hector Elizondo are all obviously slumming for big paychecks but go through the motions with finesse. But the standout is Peter Weller, taking a break from Robocop and playing Beck, the leader, with forcefulness and variety, and also an understatedness that goes down well in a hero who's thankfully short on two-fisted macho posturing.
Creature fans will find the work of Aliens' Stan Winston only so-so, regretfully. The design is largely that of what one reviewer called a "fish mutant", and that's pretty much how it stacks up. While it's never overly mechanical it lacks the organic clarity of Carlo Rambaldi's work in Alien and is more or less a hodgepodge of a monster (various parts of both man and beast) like that of Carpenter's Thing. At times, you wish for a more definitive view of it, especially in the later stages, when it's grown into a more interesting-looking manifestation; but in the film's defense, the less-is-more approach does keep our imaginations working, creating a bit more horror in our minds than if the creature were red-carpet-rolled in front of us at any given opportunity. The gore factor is aplenty, rest assured, but it's not uncouthly dished out. (There's even an unexpected jolt when a character tries to wield off an attack by gripping an infected character's arm, and a set of jaws opens out from the hand.) In director Cosmatos' capable hands, the creature aspects are handled as well as to be expected given the hit-and-miss f/x work; he largely downplays the visceral possibilities of the creature and concentrates more on the characters' befuddlement over and fear of it, pondering its life cycle and motives where a growing sense of dread gradually overtakes us. Cosmatos is a gifted storyteller who knows what to look at and how to look at it, and also knows a thing or two about moving people and objects within the widescreen frame for maximum impact. The gliding camerawork is so wondrous at times you can't help reminding yourself just what subgenre the film's working in given the majority of rotten camerabatics most films of this ilk disgracefully employ. Cosmatos can be a bit of a bastard, though. He gives the most excruciating death, involving an eel-like monstrosity ravishingly burrowing into a stomach, to the second-most appealing character (and a minority, to boot!); and he has the beautiful Pays, whose liberal/feminist character is training to be an astronaut, strip down to bra and panties not once but twice (and that second time in the shower, no less!) -- then again, there's also the genuinely affecting scene where the mortal plight of a tearful Eilbacher is given respectful emotional weight that semi-levels out the director's sexism. And perhaps Cosmatos should have his wrists slapped for telegraphing the final surprise like a true killjoy -- if the shots had been juxtaposed more quickly, we might not have been wise to it from a couple of zip codes away. But there's not a whole lot in Leviathan that's worthy of nitpicking. It's far from original, no doubt, but its success at getting the most out of its unoriginality is what counts, and the rewards Cosmatos and company serve up are plentiful and, at times, dare I say it, gorgeously realized.Throw away any preconceived notions and just give this neat-o underwater horror tale a look-see. You'll be surprised and delighted.
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originally posted: 07/09/06 02:46:09