Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Thirty One Days of Horror: Leviathan

Day Seventeen: Leviathan

A movie from 1989 that I've never seen before featuring Peter Weller? I wonder how many horror movies (or close enough) Peter Weller has starred in that I don't know about? Actually the big mystery of Leviathan is: how did I not see this movie in the theaters in 1989 when it came out? Seriously, in 1989 I was a freshman in college, with no job and I had exactly three things (aside from college) occupying my time: RPGs, women and movies. Admittedly that was the year Batman  came out, but still....! A movie that was an inspirational rip off of The Thing and Alien would seem to be my cup of tea. Maybe my tolerance for B movies wasn't so great back then. Hmmm.

Leviathan stars Peter Weller as Beck, an unfortunate geologist put in charge of an undersea mining operation by the enigmatic company, looking to make a motherload mining silver from the bottom of the ocean. Yes: silver. As it turns out, a modest amount of googling reveals that there are many people (and institutes) looking at deep sea mining as a possibility for the future, if they can convince  people that the environmental impact is minimal, and that the possible gain is worthwhile. Interesting.

Anyway, this movie must happen in the near future from today, because they didn't have this sort of tech in 1989...which means yes, the film is full of anachronistic computer technology...but that's beside the issue! The film focuses on eight deep sea divers who run the operation, using heavy deep sea diving lift suits to mine for silver. As always they are an eclectic crowd of individualists who are miraculously highly skilled at what they do despite all suffering from sociopathy and borderline personality disorder issues, or at least suffering from what I call the "TV-actoritis" personality problem. When the best actor here, the guy hamming it all up, is Peter know you've got one of "those movies" on your hands. You know the type: hamfisted actors with over-the-top personalities built for conflict, a surplus of overly dramatic hack emotions and a total lack of believable behavior, such that you remember the characters not for their credible nature or realistic depictions of what deep sea divers might act like, but instead how badly they act and how inappropriately they conduct themselves almost constantly on screen. That sort of acting.

Amanda Pays (Williams) was no Milla Jovovich, but she could have been

The movie has a lot of "throwback" elements which surprise me, given it came out in 1989 and I am pretty sure that a majority of films were moving away from the canned sounds and effects of the prior couple decades. Today its a joke...a bad one, that's been told way too many times, when we hear the "stormtrooper scream," better known as the Wilhelm Scream, that accompanies any nameless mook falling from a building. You don't hear that scream here, but you will hear a lot of other such noises, from the sound of a punching fist to the slurping monster. It's not as bad as...say...Galaxy of Terror, but noticeable. Maybe it was less noticeable back then. Who knows.

Okay, so the crew of this mining vessel stumbles across the deep sea wreck of a Soviet vessel called the Leviathan. The cocky jerk guy makes a mistake which reveals the wreck and then finds a safe full of treasure from the crew on board. The team breaks open and distributes the loot from the safe, but a bottle of vodka is confiscated by the captain to teach the jerk guy a lesson. The jerk, of course, pockets a flask of vodka he finds. Later, he and the obligatory hot gal with loose morals share a sip and of course suffer the consequences for their impudence, but in the meantime the crew settles in, thinking they are close to getting lifted back to the surface for a switch-out and with some bonus loot as a nice extra.

Of course, it doesn't work out like that. The captain and the doctor on board watch a VHS tape made by the dead Russian captain, which suggests very, very obliquely that the ship had an outbreak of some sickness on board and then....nada. So there's a tiny bit of foreshadowing.

Speaking of doctors and copycats, the doctor is revealed to have a suspicious past but since this film is allegedly set in the near future they couldn't make him an android and making him actually be a stooge for the man would have been a bit too obvious. Still, they know our expectations as set by Alien and The Thing, so they do play with this a bit later on.

Eventually the jerk and his gal pal are revealed to be sick. First the jerk succumbs, as he develops a scaly rash, then seems to die. Then, as the rest of the crew is checked out, his girlfriend is revealed to be sick, but before anyone catches on she stumbles across the jerk's body, realizes something horrible is mutating him, and goes to off herself in the shower with some convenient surgical knives lying around. Silly gal! This monster has the mighty power of both Alien and Thing DNA, and it easily uses her dead flesh to its own further ends not long after.

The doctor and captain realize this is bad news and try to flush the jerk's body (which is melding with the woman's corpse now). The doctor suspects "genetic alteration" or so his magic 8-ball computer (or whomever he was talking to; it's not always clear) suspects. The body is mutating, coming back to life, and they manage to toss it down the hatch at the last second, but not before a chunk breaks off Thing-style and starts hatching a fiendish mutant lamprey when no one is looking.

The movie then rapidly degenerates into a depressing variation on Benny Hill in which everyone runs around awkwardly  for various reasons insuring they are all alone as bad things start to happen and the bodycount rises.

Amidst all this there's a corporate shill played by Meg Foster (who has terrifying eyes, by the way) who provides the late-80's appropriate role as ominous corporate villain that you know pretty much from the instant you see her is going to cause problems somehow. She is mostly present as a voice and image from the surface throughout the film, until the finale.

Evil Meg Foster is Evil
I could go on, but you all know how this ends. If you think you haven't seen it already, guess again. The most surprising twists in this movie are as follows:

1. The doctor, while played suspiciously, is revealed to be conscientious of the problem and takes action to quarantine everyone by jettisoning the escape bubbles. At least, that's what I got out of his actions. The important thing was that he made sure that any escape could become suitably dramatic.

2. The people the creature absorbs seem to remain partially alive while it marauds about. It looks kind of like a big rubbery deep one with people parts hanging off. It's not that smart, but like the Alien it grows at a much greater rate than it's food intake would suggest, and must have an absolutely near-perfect conversion rate of protein/matter to body mass. Also, it's only really distinguishing traits as a hybrid of the Alien and Thing are that it likes to absorb dead matter, and it does so fairly slowly. Also, it's a classic Big Rubber Suit monster so the threat it poses is best presented in as oblique and vague a manner as possible lest we get too good a look at it.

3. All those cool deep sea suits and no underwater fight with the monster? No modern CGI film could resist! But in 1989 I imagine the budget to make such an encounter look good was way too costly and the results way too cheesy.

4. Three people make it to the end, including Captain Beck, Williams (Amanda Pays), and Jones (Ernie Hudson) who is no doubt wishing he'd kept working for the Ghostbusters. Three is a lot for this sort of movie. On the other hand when they are evacuated by copter after a very brief interaction with the monster (one of them) Jones is nearly killed but rescued by the captain...then sort of disappears at the end, giving the captain and Williams a chance to deck Ms. Martin (the corporate stooge). Yep, Peter Weller hits a lady. Then some very peppy music plays to let the audience know its all okay and you can leave the theater feeling good about life. So I guess I was stunned that there was no establishing shot showing Jones mutating on the helipad into a creature while snacking on the rescue team. Amazing!

"Get back, doctor. Either you're about to reveal that you're an android or this thing will eat your arms, I'm sure of it."
There are many fridge logic moments in this movie. A few of my favorites:

1. As always the psych dept. for the company appears to need some work, as more than a few of the deep sea operators here appear to have incredibly poor judgement for such a dangerous facility.

2. At one point they jettison some mutating bodies. Why did the creature which spawned from the bodies stick around to chase the survivors to the surface? Seriously, it had its pick of the entire ocean's fauna to snack on, grow and assimilate. But no, it chooses petty revenge and pays for it. Hell, it had to be eating something out there, because the one at the end is clearly bigger than the one in the imploded mining facility, which absorbed roughly three or four bodies.

3. If the creature could assimilate dead flesh from a virus of some sort laced in vodka, why would any explosives or other injuries really harm it for the long run? Assuming the flesh wasn't really dead but just in suspended animation, and the virus is simply restitching everything genetically to come back as a Dagon-like deep one of some sort, then even if you blow it up, wouldn't the virus just restart with whatever was left? The actual biology of the Leviathan creature is really, really vague and difficult to reconcile with reality, precisely because it can't quite come out and say, "this works just like the Thing does," or even that it's hideously alien and therefore could be working in some weird xenobiological way like the alien (Prometheus aside).

On the Russian ship there is a skeleton of one of the creatures, but its not entirely clear that the creature died because the ship sank and it drowned or what. Given it seems to be a natural deep sea predator once formed that seems unlikely. I guess the creature's morphology is intended to be "formed from the virus, but otherwise a normal monster once grown up," so it's not supposed to be as Thing-like as one might imagine. Perhaps the fact that it is so obviously derivative is what forces the viewer to draw comparisons and then notice that peculiarity of how it works.

4. Evil corporate shill is evil. Ms. Martin's son is Wesker, I think. You know what would have been an amazing twist? If she wasn't evil. I know, hard to ask of a 80's film, but....seriously. That would have made a nice change of pace.

Okay, so enough bashing the movie. Was it worth it? I sort of enjoyed it. The hamfisted acting made the movie endearing in a TV special sort of way, albeit much better than typical SyFy fare. It was possibly even slightly better than Alien: Resurrection (talk about damning with faint praise!) The FX were generally quite good, although comparing the film to other works such as Abyss and Sphere will quickly lead to the observation that this film is actually kind of limited, but good at working with what it has. Peter Weller was amusing in his heroic role, and carried the film reasonably well despite lacking the sort of horror-action hero charisma that other, similar leads such as Sam Neill or Kurt Russell convey so easily. Still, the movie is so derivative and so awkward at times that it's hard to feel that good about it. I would give it a solid C average.

Go see Leviathan if you've already seen all of the other objectively good films and are interested in a comparison study of why a derivative film will fail if it's primary motivation is to be described as "Just like Alien and The Thing but under water!" The lesson being: gimmicky me-too films will always expose their true color. Which is gimme-summathat-cash green.

Alien+Thing+Deep One = Leviathan creature

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