The Film: 4/5
Somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the crew of a deep sea silver mining outpost operated by Tri-Oceanic Corp and commanded by Steven Beck (Peter Weller) is three days away from the end of their latest 90-day work shift and looking forward to going home. During a rush to meet their quota so the company won't screw them over on their paychecks crew member Sixpack (Daniel Stern) discovers the rusted hulk of the sunken Russian vessel Leviathan and brings back to the station a safe containing a video log made by the ship's captain, files, and a bottle of vodka. As Beck and medical officer Doc Thompson (Richard Crenna) investigate the mysterious circumstances that resulted in the Leviathan's destruction Sixpack and fellow miner Bowman (Lisa Eilbacher) enjoy the fine Russian vodka. Soon after partaking of the forbidden Soviet spirits they both begin developing odd mutations on their body. Beck and Doc discover that the vodka contained a mutagen created by the Russians that the crew of the Leviathan unwillingly drank and when the experiment was on the brink of losing control the ship was torpedoed. Now the miners are being systematically slaughtered and absorbed into a hideous mutant monstrosity that needs fresh blood to thrive and grow, and all that stands between it and unleashing its evil on the world are Beck, Doc, and crew members Willie (Amanda Pays), Jones (Ernie Hudson), DeJesus (Michael Carmine), and Cobb (Hector Elizondo).
The year of 1989 was a crucial one in my young life. In one day I celebrated both the end of my first decade of existence and the beginning of my second. It was also the year of the Great Undersea Sci-Fi/Horror Movie War when three major motion pictures about a group of scientists/soldiers/miners stationed at the bottom of the ocean who encounter monsters beyond anyone's understanding were released within months of each other. First out of the gate on January 13 was Sean S. Cunningham's DeepStar Six. Its Friday release date was highly appropriate as Cunningham was the man responsible for the Friday the 13th franchise. In August of that summer James Cameron's The Abyss, arguably the most creatively and technologically ambitious film of his career, opened in theaters in a cut truncated from the director's original intentions to critical raves and good but ultimately underwhelming box office.
Nestled snugly between the two in terms of scope, ambition, and success was the MGM release Leviathan, a U.S.-Italian co-production directed by George Cosmatos (Rambo: First Blood Part II) from a screenplay by David Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) and Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive). Boasting a game ensemble cast and terrific practical effects from a team captained by the late FX legend Stan Winston, Cosmatos' creepy, crafty mash-up of Alien, The Thing, and Forbidden World had to wait until its release on video and cable to find an appreciative audience. I had the good fortune of catching Leviathan in its premiere on HBO one Saturday night in early 1990 and as I recall it was really good. Over two decades later I watched it again and found it to be even better despite the fact that in the years since my first viewing I had seen and loved most of the films that Leviathan had taken its inspiration, plot, and overall look from. My third full viewing of the film came courtesy of this new Blu-ray from Shout! Factory and by the time the credits I was ready to conclude that Leviathan, derivative of far superior features it may be, is a sorely underrated hunk of premium late-80's genre schlock made with craftsmanship and wit.
It has many virtues that the majority of its celluloid peers lacked, most importantly breakneck pacing and an energized sense of fun and excitement that is a rare commodity in our modern entertainments. Cosmatos didn't muck about when he was calling the shots on a feature, as anyone who has seen the burly Italian director's other gifts to cinema like Cobra, Tombstone, and his beautifully tense killer rat flick Of Unknown Origin can verify. The plot may owe a great debt to better films that came before, but even those particular classics would never have been made without the inspiration of the beloved creature features of the 50's and 60's that live forever thanks to late-night and mid-Saturday afternoon showings on local syndicated stations. Cosmatos assembled an outstanding cast anchored by a stellar, authoritative performance from Peter Weller (who had previously starred in Of Unknown Origin for Cosmatos) as the reluctant leader of the mining crew who must rise to the occasion and become a true leader when the lives of those under his command are at stake. Weller brings humor and toughness to the archetypal role through his Buckaroo Banzai-esque line delivery and stoic presence and he gets to add some much-needed dimension to the character of Beck with priceless throwaway moments like when he consults a self help paperback about developing stronger management skills so he can better earn his crew's respect and trust.
The rest of the cast consists of old and young pros and together with Weller they develop an authentic chemistry that adds to their appearance as a convincing team. Each performer gets their share time of screen time to bring life and nuance to their underwritten parts. Richard Crenna (Wait Until Dark) is every bit the capable doctor with his intelligence, insight into the creature loose on the platform, and a refreshing sense of cynical humor. Daniel Stern (C.H.U.D.) struts his stuff as the crew's resident horndog Sixpack with a performance of bug-eyed intensity that gives him plenty of vulgar one-liners. Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) gets to play the Ernie Hudson role with tired, sardonic levity, and the late Michael Carmine (Band of the Hand) does fine as the crew member the most likely to crack up at any moment. Hector Elizondo (Pretty Woman) is always worth watching and he gets one of the funniest lines of dialogue in the entire Peoples/Stuart screenplay when he talks about the unpleasant family he is faced with returning to when his tour of duty has ended. Only the female characters played by Amanda Pays (The Flash) and Lisa Eilbacher (10 to Midnight) get short-changed by the script as they are required to spend most of their time on camera in various states of undress. At least they are permitted to invest some welcome vulnerability in their limited roles that feels and looks believable and the film does allow them a few interesting character traits that adds to the crew camaraderie. Finally, if Cosmatos wanted to conceal the treacherous activities of Tri-Oceanic (the film's earthbound spiritual ancestor to Weyland-Yutani of the Alien movies) he would have been wise to not hire the always appreciated Meg Foster (They Live) as the two-faced corporate villain, but fortunately her quiet line readings add an element of uncertainty and human menace to the story.
The set design of the mining station is fantastic but it definitely borrows a lot from the rusted metal bulkheads and corridors of Alien's central location the Nostromo, which is no surprise given that Ron Cobb, who was a concept artist on Ridley Scott's outer space horror classic, served as the production designer of Leviathan. Cinematographer Alex Thomson is no stranger to shooting action and sci-fi features; his credits prior to Leviathan included Dr. Phibes Rises Again, Excalibur, The Keep, Legend, Labyrinth, and both Year of the Dragon and The Sicilian for director Michael Cimino. He would later get to bring his talent for capturing otherworldly visuals to the Alien franchise as the director of photography on Alien 3 (where he stepped in for the ailing Jordan Cronenweth). His camerawork on Leviathan is both bright and dark at the proper moments and he takes full advantage of the widescreen frame and the expansive and utilitarian sets. Thomson's cinematography also serves the great practical effects created under the supervision of the late Stan Winston very well. The main monster may look like a hybrid of a xenomorph and an agitated prawn when glimpsed in full, but it is used sparingly until the crazy tense finale. Until then Winston's talented team has plenty of gruesome sights of mutated, pulsating bodies and slime-dripping transformations to keep the ick factor on high. Jerry Goldsmith's score is one of his best and most overlooked works of the decade, incorporating whale sounds into a soundtrack that alternates between playful and optimistic and terrifying in the manner of his brilliant scores for Logan's Run and the original Planet of the Apes and Alien. Fans of Italian exploitation cinema will be delighted to spot the names of Ottaviano Dell'Acqua (the worm-eyed living corpse from Lucio Fulci's Zombie) and Bobby Rhodes (Demons) on the Leviathan stunt team, while the Fulci flick's shark-wrestling walker Ramón Bravo is credited as an underwater camera operator.
Shout! Factory picked up the rights from the ever-troubled MGM to release Leviathan on Blu-ray via their Scream Factory imprint and with it a newly remastered high-definition print no doubt created for the studio's MGM HD cable channel and upscaled in 1080p for this release. The transfer is framed in the film's original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio and looks fantastic for its age. Grain is kept to an absolute minimum and details have been cleaned up and sharpened considerably. The brightness level in the vibrant Technicolor cinematography has been increased but not at the expense of compromising the atmosphere or revealing the seams in the creature effects. In the sound department Shout! has included English DTS-HD Master Audio tracks in both 5.1 and 2.0. I couldn't detect any noticeable differences in the dual audio channels so it all depends really on your choice of television and speaker system. The soundtrack which was mixed in Dolby Spectral Recording offers a wealth of dynamic range in the action sequences and the dialogue and music score can be heard with stunning clarity and zero distortion on both audio tracks. English subtitles have also been included.
Sadly Cosmatos is no longer around for a new interview or commentary but Shout! Factory in collaboration with Cliff MacMillan and Aine Leicht have produced a trio of retrospective supplemental interviews for Leviathan's Blu-ray debut. The meatiest of the extras is "Leviathan: Monster Melting Pot" (40 minutes), a candid and informative look back at the creation and execution of the film's complex special effects featuring new interviews with creature effects artists Tom Woodruff Jr., Shannon Shea, and Alec Gillis. Though the main focus is the process that went into building the various gooey practical monsters all three interviewees also talk extensively about working with the late Stan Winston and don't shy away when it comes to discussing the occasional tension on the set that arose between Winston and director Cosmatos. Fans of Leviathan and old school latex effects and artificial slime alike will find much to enjoy in this documentary.
"Dissecting Cobb" (13 minutes) next brings in actor Hector Elizondo to talk about getting the role of the mining crew's straightforward union shop steward Cobb and his time working on the film in Rome. Ernie Hudson does the same in "Surviving Leviathan" (15 minutes) and both actors have mostly fond memories about the film though Hudson also recalls with humorous candor how Cosmatos could often be politically incorrect when he addressed certain members of the cast and crew despite meaning well and how his character's final fate didn't go over very well with audiences in South Central Los Angeles. Hudson also touches briefly on his working relationship with the late Michael Carmine, who died almost seven months after the release of Leviathan from AIDS-related heart failure. It's always good to get contemporary perspectives from two of the industry's most resilient and professional character actors.
The original theatrical trailer and trailers for Scream Factory releases Without Warning, Lake Placid, Saturn 3, and Swamp Thing close out the extras.
While it may lack an original bone in its creative structure, Leviathan remains after 25 years an underrated example of 1980's genre-blending cinema. It looks and sounds terrific on this new Blu-ray and it comes with some fascinating new extra features that prove quality will always trump quantity. Highly recommended.