Junkfood Cinema: Leviathan

By  · Published on April 30th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; this time we mean it. This is the internet’s biggest assault on health and public safety. Every week I carelessly brandish a loaded bad film in a crowded cyberspace with no regard to the welfare of impressionable young readers. I happen to dig these turkeys and I will break down exactly what classifies them as such as well as why they strike my fancy. I will also pair each film with a tasty, but profoundly unhealthy snack food item so that this column has the real potential to, over time, alter the physicality of the readership. You can’t hear it, but I’m currently engaged in an unsettling bout of evil laughter. Today’s film is a lost sci-fi gem called Leviathan.

Leviathan is the story of a group of undersea miners digging for precious metals 16000 feet below the surface of the ocean. This diverse crew features more than a few screwballs and a commanding officer clearly nearing his wits end. On a routine dig, they come across the twisted remains of a Russian submarine. Fascinated by its presence and intrigued as to the reason for its apparent destruction, they retrieve a safe from the wreckage. In the safe they find several files on sailors marked “deceased,” a chilling videotaped captain’s log, and a flask of vodka. One of the more unscrupulous among their ranks stashes the flask and later partakes of it privately with a female member of the crew. Soon it becomes clear that there was something amiss with the liquor as both crew members fall violently ill. The changes in them, caused by the illness, may very well destroy the underwater facility and all within.

What Makes It Bad?

If this movie were any more derivative, it would have been made by the Italians in the 80s…oh wait, it kind of was. If you remember the origin of this column, I talked about my unabashed love for Italian Knockoff Cinema and while this film is of far superior quality to those, the spirit is alive and well. The producers of the film are Luigi and Aurelio De Laurentiis. These two would be the brother and nephew, respectively, of the greatest Italian producer of all time: Dino De Laurentiis. Director George P. Cosmatos, another Italian, also directed Tombstone, Cobra, and Rambo: First Blood Part II. I’m not saying their nationality automatically makes them guilty of plagiarism. What I am saying is that with the rampant and blatant ripping-off of other films perpetrated by Leviathan, a prevalence of Italians is not necessarily a surprise to me.

Let’s play spot the rip-off! A crew of scientists in an isolated facility is besieged by a being that gets inside them and then assimilates all the other crew members into it? If you said Remains of the Day, you are correct! But I think it also bears a striking resemblance to John Carpenter’s The Thing. How about a crew of scientists with big personalities working for a less-than-upright corporation who happen upon a wrecked ship and suffer the consequences of bringing something from that ship aboard? The answer I’m looking for is Alien…but I would have also accepted Mac and Me. There is even a scene wherein the captain throws an explosive into the mouth of the monster as he’s floating on the ocean and demands of it, “say ah muthafucka!” If you watch this scene and don’t superimpose Roy Scheider and that seminal shark, you clearly haven’t watched it as many hundred times as I have.

Apart from it being little more than a cinema Cuisinart, the biggest problem with Leviathan is just how cheesy it is. Now I know the criticism that is currently tumbling around in your heads, “but Brian, you love cheesy films so how can that be a mark against this movie?!!!” First of all, stop shouting at me from inside your minds. I do love cheesy films, and I like the cheesiness here, but the problem surfaces when the cheesiness subverts intended tone. It is clear to me that the reason all those other sci-fi/horror films were “borrowed from” was because the filmmakers wanted to recreate the effectiveness of those films.

But this is a situation where they admired The Thing, Jaws, and Alien but had no real understanding of why those films worked so well. So while we get the framework and railings of the Nostromo, all of the chases are fully-lit and squeaky clean; negating the haunted-house-in-space aesthetic of Alien and making it look more like being chased through a candy factory. Add into the equation repartee between the crew members that lacks the cleverness of that in The Thing and a host of insert shots that deny us a sense of scale to the monster for most of the film, and you understand why Leviathan has little to no atmosphere.

Why I Love It!

If nothing else, you have to love the cast of this film. The commander is none other than Peter “Robocop” Weller himself! The more I see him in movies, the more I realize he should have only ever been Robocop but he’s fun to watch in this one. The chief medical officer is played by Richard Crenna from the Rambo films and one of my favorite actors. Rounding out our doomed crew are Ernie “affirmative action Ghostbuster” Hudson, Daniel “you won’t be so smug when Macaulay Culkin kicks your ass” Stern, and Hector “inexplicably featured in every romantic comedy ever” Elizondo. I made mention of the bad jokes that get fired between them and while those lines do draw attention to Leviathan’s inferiority to the films it is referencing, I found myself chuckling. Another recognizable face would be the head of the Tri-Oceanic corporation (the Weyland-Yutani of this film) played by They Live’s Meg Foster.

The principal reason that this film garners praise from me is the monster. When we do finally see it, the genius of its creator unfolds before us in glorious form and color. The late effects guru Stan Winston designed the monster for Leviathan and if I have to explain to you why that is a big deal, I may have to send a Terminator back in time to force your younger self to watch 8 straight hours of both Aliens and Predator. The creature is based on actual sea life with a blend of the supernatural that adds just the right flair to make it unsettling. Like the monster from The Thing, which by the way was created by Stan Winston’s apprentice Rob Bottin, pieces of this monster sheer off to form their own entity and it grows to massive proportions. The giant arms and claw-bearing hands that reach out and grab victims are terrifying enough, but the fact that it also uses eel-like mini monsters is even more interesting. There is also an amazingly well-crafted scene where the monster’s head gets crushed by an elevator.

I love claustrophobic horror films. There is something completely unnerving about the idea that there is absolutely no escape from the monster/killer/what-have-you. In The Thing, though they were in a wide open expanse, they were trapped by the unbearable elements of that landscape. Leviathan is more like Alien in that they are trapped inside because there is no air to breathe outside the confines of the facility’s walls. Even if the quality of the film is questionable, it’s a flavor of horror film of which I cannot get enough. I don’t think they pushed the cabin fever element far enough but I cannot argue with the intensity and awesomeness of the ending as the entire mining complex implodes in on itself. Nice!

All in all, this movie is a lot of fun. It is derivative and funnels a lot of other movies into a completely inferior one, but at least they had the good sense to rip-off some truly great films and demonstrate solid production values of their own. Again, I’m not keen on their lack of compelling lighting or their incessant use of insert shots but the set is fairly impressive and I loved the open ocean shots. The weapons they break out to fight the monster, I shit you not, look as if the props guys walked across the street to Home Depot, raided the gardening department, and attached everything to silver-painted boxes. The future! And if you thought you’d have to go your whole life without seeing Peter Weller punch a woman in the face, fret no longer.

Junkfood Pairing: Swedish Fish

As you marvel at the bevy of sea life engaged in the complex dance of life before your eyes, eat some chewy fish. If you really want the full Leviathan experience, grab some of your other favorite candies and start pressing them into the gelatinous innards of the Swedish fish. That’s right, assimilate all your candy into one massive candy creature! More evil laughter!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.