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Monday, July 20, 2015

Movie Monthly - Leviathan (1989)

For some reason in 1989 the world just decided it was obsessed with deep sea diving and exploration.  This was the year that gave us The Abyss, DeepStar Six, The Evil Below, Lords of the Deep, The Rift, and today’s topic Leviathan.  Now for most folks that list probably seems pretty obscure aside from James Cameron’s The Abyss but chances are if you grew up in the era of video rental stores chances are you know quite a few of those entries by sight if not by name.  Almost all of these deep-sea base films had a very unique and similar box art design, which is actually how I stumbled on Leviathan as a choice for this review.  That was just nature of rental video in the days before the immediate reward and no risk structure of streaming.  This also means that even when you’re talking about low-rent video rental scifi horror like Leviathan you can count on it to at least look good and be bonkers in all the right places.  

Leviathan lives in a very well worn corridor of the scifi-horror genre overlap: locked base horror.  This is that strata of horror film wherein a group of individuals are somehow trapped in a remote structure with some thing stalking them through the structure.  It’s basically an updating and reworking of the classic haunted house film formula that informed the chillers and thrillers of the ‘30s and ‘40s.  The holy trilogy of this particular genre tract is, of course, Alien, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Event Horizon.  Resultantly Leviathan ends up as a sort of synthesis of all the key aspects of this with the central gimmick being the sub-aquatic location, making it a sort of sister film to Galaxy of Terror.  Also much like Galaxy of Terror it’s a film that looks amazing but we’ll get more into that later on. 
The story revolves around a remote deep-sea mining facility set up a monolithic and ethically bankrupt corporation.  From the start the set-up puts us thoroughly on harmony with Ridley Scott’s Alien: evil but somewhat non-descript company, a crew of industrial workers rather than scientists or soldiers, and an emphasis in dialogue on shop talk about quotas and company policy.  That focus continues when the crew discovers a sunken Russian ship called The Leviathan and salvage innocuous seeming valuables from it.  However the crew ends up exposed to a deadly organism within the sunken ship that starts mutating some and hunting the others.

Though the central plot of Leviathan is fairly basic in its structure it’s by no means underwritten nor is the film under-acted.  Actually the film boasts a good amount of geek talent with Peter Weller (Robocop, Buckaroo Bonzai) and Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters, The Crow) in the lead roles with Richard Crenna (First Blood) and Daniel Stern (The Wonder Years) in supporting roles.  Everyone on board turns in a fine performance and it’s clear that even though Leviathan is simplistic it’s by no means phoned in.  This is especially apparent in the beautiful set-design.  It’s all incredibly bulky and rusted with a dark, dank, dripping atmosphere that hangs over the miles of tunnels and tubing of the undersea base.  Additionally while the set-up is culled predominately from Alien the mechanics and design of the monster are way more in line with John Carpenter’s The Thing.  The creature starts out as an incubating infection that slowly twists and morphs its host and there’s even an emphasis on the each individual part of the creature being alive and its victims being incorporated into its biomass. 

I’ve talked a lot about B-movies during this month’s theme and while Leviathan certainly has aspects of a B-movie that’s not really where its true identity lies.  The parts of it that feel fully informed by the tropes of a B-movie are few and far between, like the crew arming up with deep sea drilling equipment to fight the monster like giant futuristic chainsaws and flamethrowers.  For the most part though Leviathan is something else entirely: a pulp film.  This gets into a very important but very meaningful difference, in particular a film’s major emphasis.  In the case of Leviathan the film’s emphasis isn’t really to explore broader fears like The Thing or Alien did or to be the kind of dumb fun with horror monsters as antagonists that Shark Night 3D or Bait 3D managed, the emphasis is placed on artifice.  The whole point of the film is on recreating the structures of scifi horror combined with a unique and incredibly impressive visual palette.  That’s the emphasis of pulp as a whole, to push aesthetics and artifice more than story or subtext.  That’s part of why pulp films are so often mistakenly brushed off by critics, because the focus isn’t on the things that have been agree to have critical merit.  We often get so wrapped up in defining a film strictly by its story and meaning we neglect a whole portion of the movie making process: the visuals.  After all if a film’s visuals weren’t important and definitive it wouldn’t need them at all.  

Obviously this denotation means Leviathan isn’t a film everyone will enjoy or even you’ll enjoy if you’re not in the right mood for it.  If you’re looking for a movie where the story is constantly throwing you for a loop or has some deeper idea it needs to tell you this isn’t it.  Leviathan is a perfect film to just sort of experience, you need to lay back and let it wash over you and appreciate for an exercise in visuals and genre tropes more than for plot originality or, ironically, depth.  

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