Leviathan and Deep Star Six;
You have to hand it to movie studios. They are just so adept at coming up with original ideas independently. Take for example, the year 1989: Not one, but three major studios independently (Im sure) came up with the idea of doing sci-fi adventure films in an underwater setting. We refer to The Abyss, Leviathan and Deep Star Six.
Out of these three films, The Abyss has the merits of a measure of originality, and a budget that actually permitted it to look like something Roger Corman didnt throw together on a bad day. Leviathan and Deep Star Six are entirely different animals, because they are not only throwbacks to bad 50s B-grade sci-fi, both are also essentially remakes of alien underwater.
The most challenging aspect of reviewing these two movies lies in the fact that after viewing them back to back, its darned near impossible to remember which is which. About the only really distinguishing characteristic that can be drawn from Leviathan over Deep Star is the presence of a few cast members that are reasonably well known today. At the time, actors like Peter Weller, Amanda Pays and Daniel Stern were early enough in their careers and hungry enough to take a chance at strangling their fledgling careers in the cradle for a little exposure. And Richard Crenna was sufficiently washed up that he probably figured any paycheck cashes out green, so there was no damage to be done by appearing in this film.
Both of these films are shameless Alien ripoffs, but Leviathan wins the honor of pulling it off the most blatantly without hint of a blush. The film changes the setting from outer space to ocean floor, plugs in new faces for the cast, and then becomes almost a literal line-by-line remake. We follow the adventures of the members of an undersea mining expedition (sound familiar?) who are wrapping up their tour of duty (sound familiar?) They come across a strange vessel (never mind), which turns out to be a sunken Russian submarine, The Leviathan.
After salvaging a few items from the sunken subs safe, the crew discovers the Captains video log. Fortunately, Ricard Crennas character happens to be one of the 3 dozen people in America who speaks fluent Russian, and he is able to translate the contents. The crew has come down with some sort of virulent infection, which is sweeping through the ship. But the video cuts off mid-sentence, leaving the crew ignorant as to the real problem.
It seems that the disease causes gene altering in the human hosts, and transforms the unlucky infected into grotesque, blood drinking sea creatures. We settle back to watch the crew members get picked off one by one, in order of their relative importance toward advancing the plot of the film to date. Naturally each new meal of a crew member causes the creature to grow larger and apparently even more hungry. Thus the creature grows from rubber eel into a creature we dont really get to see until near the end of the movie. That would have required the expenditure of some cash.
When we actually do finally get to see what the crews terror looks like, we get a pretty good idea why the people who made this film were so desperate to at least attempt to guard the credibility of their efforts. The dreaded beast is cheesy looking enough to have walked off of the set of the old Lost In Space TV series. Seriously: This film eats up a hundred minutes of our lives that we can never get back attempting to build up some sort of suspense and fear factor in the audience by menacing the crew with an essentially unseen and evil terror, then flushes (sorry, I couldnt resist) the entire effort with a monster that looks like H.R. Puffenstuff on a bad hair day.
Deep Star Six is an even worse movie in its way, but at least it attempts to distinguish itself from Alien ever so slightly before cashing in on it. Here we have some sort of undersea navy crew who are attempting to set up some sort of underwater missle base. I suspect a lot of people are going to be shot for this movie right off the bat, if the simple question typically occurs as to what the possible advantage could be of setting up a stationary undersea missle base.
The crew has discovered a set of caverns under the missle site, which they determine must be destroyed. However, the mission biologist wants to explore the caves first, because she believes they may be occupied by a rare life-form that has popped up frequently in local legend. If we werent already puzzled enough by the strategic merits of a stationary undersea missle base, we now get sidetracked by wondering why a marine biologist would be sent along on a mission to set one up. Maybe there is an EPA regulation or something.
It turns out that some sort of unknown arthropod exists in the area, which is attracted by light. If things in this film werent confusing enough, we now get to ask the question as to why any of the vessels in the film have lights in the first place. None of them have any viewports or anything of that nature. All their navigation appears to be done by sonar. I couldnt establish that it had much to do with anyone else being able to see them either, since they were at the bottom of the ocean, and apparently working on a more or less secret mission anyway.
Once again, the flesh eating terror gets into the crews underwater habitat, and begins the process of picking off crew members. Again, care was taken to avoid actually showing us the beast, because if anything, this movie was even lower budget than Leviathan. Thus we are ultimately treated to the site of what we are supposed to fear: A guy in a latex suit who looks like a hyperthyroid slug. But this film did feature one other departure: the principle force of evil really doesnt kill very many people. Almost everyone who dies in this film meets their fate either as the result of accident, stupidity or bad luck. The sea creature is almost an afterthought, probably because scenes of it eating someone would have been much harder to pull off than scenes of someone getting trapped in a closing hatch.
If it hadnt been for the landmark classic Alien, the output of Hollywood sci-fi over the last two decades would have been almost nil. It seems as if about 90% of all science fiction films have been virtual remakes of it. For the purpose of Hollywood, the beauty of it all is that you can do a virtual remake without having to invest a lot of money in a credible looking monster either. Just keep it hidden until the very end, when you become obliged to show the audience that their heroes have been terrified for an hour and a half by a guy covered in a shag carpet. Too bad all the drive-ins are gone