James Cameron became the director to imitate for trend-chasing genre filmmakers and studios in the ’80s: his popular hits The Terminator and Aliens left plenty of cheap-o imitations littering the shelves of VHS stores. By the time he made The Abyss, his competitors worked hard to beat him to the punch: both Deep Star Six and Leviathan were quickly cranked out by rival studios and rushed into theaters before Cameron’s underwater sci-fi/adventure made it to theaters in the summer of 1989.
Leviathan benefits from a healthy budget and the good cast/crew that such money brings – but is content to settle for being a programmer rather than trying to really compete with its target. The premise is essentially Alien meets the John Carpenter version of The Thing: an undersea mining operation run by man of science Beck (Peter Weller) is wrapping up its contract run when the workers stumble onto the wreck of a Russian ship.
Miners Sixpack (Daniel Stern) and Willie (Amanda Pays) fish out a safe from inside the rusting ship to learn about it. It seems everyone inside died from some strange condition and the boat might have been sunk on purpose. Soon enough, similar trouble kicks in at the mining camp: Sixpack drinks a flask of vodka from the Russian ship containing a hidden science experiment(!) that causes him to mutate. Soon enough, his fellow miners are dropping like flies as the survivors have to do battle with a mutant that grows ever larger and more lethal.
Leviathan offers a strange mix of competence and derivative concepts. Though the script is uninspired, it hits all the right marks to make things work on a time-killer sort of level. It also boasts impressive production design from Ron Cobb and a stellar backing cast. In addition to the actors mentioned in the synopsis above, you also get Richard Crenna as the ship doctor who’s hiding a secret, Ernie Hudson as the resident cynic, Hector Elizondo as a working joe type who gets the funniest lines and Meg Foster as a smarmy corporate exec who communicates with Weller by video screen.
Unfortunately, Leviathan has two serious problems that hold it back. The first is that the makeup effects aren’t that impressive: according to those involved, Stan Winston’s studio had to crank out the makeup effects on a tight schedule with conflicting input so the effects have a kind of generic, rushed look to them. The other problem is that director George Cosmatos, better known for action fare like Rambo: First Blood Part II, just doesn’t understand how to direct a monster film. He doesn’t have much a feel for building suspense or tension and tends to rush through the big FX setpieces. As a result, Leviathan feels more chaotic than scary.
Thus, Leviathan is a watchable yet unsatisfying sci-fi/horror crossover: too professional to be dismissed but too derivative and uninspired to merit a lot of discussion. The ace cast and slick production values are its best assets – and it’s appeal will depend on how much those elements do for you.