Saturday 14 January 2012

Leviathan (1989)

Director: George P Cosmatos
Stars: Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, Amanda Pays, Daniel Stern, Ernie Hudson, Michael Carmine, Meg Foster, Lisa Eilbacher and Hector Elizondo

Given that tomorrow I'll be at DarkCon where I'll get the opportunity to meet Ernie Hudson and Meg Foster, it seemed appropriate tonight to watch the only picture they made together, a 1989 horror thriller set 16,000 feet underneath the Atlantic Ocean. It's not a great movie, hardly the peak of the few films George P Cosmatos directed. This came in between Rambo (the first one), Cobra and Tombstone and it really doesn't sit well in that company. Its good side is that a great cast mostly tries to elevate the material but the bad is that it only gets more and more derivative with each minute that passes, starting with an ill advised scene of suspense. For some reason we're supposed to thrill as a character two miles below the surface almost runs out of oxygen on his way back to base. It sounds good on paper but we have no idea who he or anyone else is at this point and so have zero emotional investment. We simply don't know enough to care.

Instead we quickly realise where the chief influences for the picture came from. The bottom of the sea in this film looks uncannily like the set of Aliens, especially with its shades of blue. The parallels with outer space continue, perhaps fairly given that it only takes a simple hurricane to apparently strand these people as far away from civilisation as if they were in space, but they're not taken in any new direction. With the crew's return to the habitat area of Mining Shack #7, we realise that we're watching Alien not Aliens and start wondering how the roles match up. Given the diverse make up of the crew, some are obvious. Ernie Hudson is Yaphet Kotto and Hector Elizondo is Harry Dean Stanton. Amanda Pays takes Veronica Cartwright's part and a relentlessly monotone Peter Weller is the geologist in charge, thus Tom Skerritt. Richard Crenna is the film's big unknown, so perhaps he'll turn out to be Sigourney Weaver. That's the real question, right?
As the story progresses, the similarities only proliferate. This is a mining expedition, just like the Nostromo. The crew locate a scuttled Russian ship called the Leviathan down at the ocean floor, rather than a derelict alien spaceship on a planetoid. It's certainly not on active duty in the Baltic where it's supposed to be. Of course they raid its safe for cool stuff, discovering that the crew's files are all marked deceased, and unwittingly bring back a monster that will grow and develop along with the running time and hunt down the crew members one by one. What would become the Weyland-Yutani company in the Alien franchise is the Tri Oceanic Mining Corporation here. The large comic relief crab looks uncannily like a facehugger and the underwater explosion plays out just like the alien egg puffball effect. The display screens are primitive, though the computer AI is sophisticated. There's even similar drool. I just wondered where Jones the cat was.

There are some minor differences, not that they add up to a heck of a lot in the grand scheme of things. My favourite is that at one point the monster bursts into a crew member's chest rather than out but the most interesting is the way it develops. In some ways it's a direct take on the creature in Alien, as expected, in others reminding more of The Thing, but there's a good deal of originality in the creature design, as much the concept behind it as the way it's constructed. That said, the creative vision of someone like H R Giger is notable only for its absence. The characters don't die in the order we expect, but that merely highlights how much more effective Dan O'Bannon's decisions were than those of scriptwriter David Webb Peoples here. This is far more conventional and predictable, the only surprise being that we don't get the strong female lead we expect. Again, that's a disappointment. The last few minutes are almost an Arnie flick.
The only real reason to watch the film is for the acting, but even there you're more likely to be disappointed than entertained. Weller is the most disappointing, but I wonder how fair that is. It's two years after RoboCop and he certainly seems to have forgotten that he was playing a human being again, but it's possible that he was deliberately evoking the deep ennui his character must have felt. The problem is that it's very hard to play bored and still keep the audience's attention. Here we wonder whether Peter Weller or his character, Steven Beck, is the most bored with the proceedings. Crenna plays Dr Glen Thompson like William Holden would, their physical similarity never seeming quite so strong as here, though facially he's more like an old Steve McQueen. The most prominent female member of the cast, Amanda Pays, is unfortunately given little to do and so she fails to achieve much more than demonstrate similar underwear to Sigourney Weaver.

Lower down the cast list, the acting is more solid because the characters are deliberately set up as character parts. Daniel Stern is suitably juvenile, Hector Elizondo suitably sharp, Ernie Hudson suitably heroic, Lisa Eilbacher suitably colourful and Michael Carmine somehow bizarrely both suitably calm and suitably hysterical, depending on the scene. That leaves Meg Foster to play up the villainy as the crew's corporate liaison on the surface. She's first shown at the other end of a videolink, so we hear her husky voice long before we see those famous blue eyes. She's smooth and bureaucratic and serves as the face to the faceless corporation, remaining infuriatingly calm as the story gets progressively frantic. In the end she starts to fit the Ian Holm role from Alien, so we wonder if she's going to turn out to be an android. The picture would have been much more entertaining if it decided to get that off the wall. Unfortunately it doesn't.

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