Film Review: Leviathan《烈血海底城》(1989) Underrated Sci-fi Horror Master Piece by George P. Cosmatos

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FILE PHOTO: A Poster of LEVIATHAN《烈血海底城》(1989) ©Filmauro

Fear of Genetic Weapon: Mutagen


Brilliant genre film master, Greco-Italian filmmaker George P. Cosmatos (1941 – 2005) almost perfectly constructed the vivid image of the ''genetically altered'' undersea monster Homo-Aquaticus. George P. Cosmatos was like Sergio Leone (1929-89) in film style, thus his film also obviously influenced by both Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) and Hollywood mode of film production. Cosmatos' Tombstone (1993) is an another good example of this claim. It fits the social mood of coronavirus infected country or region. ''Creeping danger of highly contagious virus'' is symbolised and ''materialised'' in cinematic illusion of this fictional creature which was well designed by the famous Four-time Oscar-winning visual effects designer Stan Winston(1946-). This film especially achieved realistic monster effect, its freshness and disgustingness, complicated atmosphere of slasher thriller and psychological fear for vicious virus fetched, enclosed environment like Diamond Princess in Yokohama.

The monster design effect combined with highly crafted cinematography by Alex Thompson (1929-2007); aesthetically stylised ''sufficiently brisk pace'' film editing by John F. Burnett and Roberto Silvi. Screenplay was well written by notable blockbuster writers David Peoples (1940-) and Jeb Stuart (1956-).

FILE PHOTO: HomoAquaticus in LEVIATHAN (1989) Image:

Similarity with other aquatic genre films like ''Deepstar Six''(1989) and ''The Abyss''(1989) caused pretty mixed memory in audiences of the three films at the era. Further more, ''the material's obvious derivativeness'' to Alien franchise (1979; 1986) and THE THING (1951; 1982) franchise were still pointed out by critics globally. However, despite those external factors, LEVIATHAN (1989) itself should be independently reviewed and treated without commercial bias against it. Homo-Aquaticus is nether Alien nor THE THING creature. It is more complicated than others. Purely made at lab. In other words, this creature is more realistic than any of them.

Almost all casts are very familiar for Japanese audiences, such as Peter Weller (1947-) for Robocop franchise (1987-1990); Richard Crenna (1926-2003) for Rambo franchise (1982; 1985; 1988; 2008); Daniel Stern (1957-) for Home Alone franchise (1990; 1992); Ernie Hudson (1945-) for Ghostbuster franchise (1984; 1989; 2016); Héctor Elizondo (1936-) for Beverly Hills Cop III (1993); Meg Foster (1948-) for They Live (1988). Casting itself already exceeds ordinary blockbusters including both ''Deepstar Six''(1989) and ''The Abyss''(1989) at that time of release.

Like Alien franchise, the theme of this film is about corporate ethics. Workers are always expendable but they can unite against bad and inhuman management under extreme conditions. The monster is a caricature of fear for contagion; the real antagonist is the bad manager CEO Ms. Martin of Tri-Oceanic Corp. played by Meg Foster. A well made genre film has both personal development of protagonist(s) and making audiences enlightened at the end. This film actually achieved both core requirements thus it is not just about the rescue process and its completion. Horror film is not about monsters always. All films are about human society, human itself.

Narrative Structure

Every professional director in Hollywood understands the three act structure. It is a way to cinematically interpret the narrative structure for all film departments. For being a film editor, it is not an exception. On the contrary, ordinary critics and film theorists almost only see narrative features without any structural understanding of cinematic art. Both profit centre or political centre are helpless for filmmakers.

In filmmaking, the time ratio on narrative structure is not fundamental, however it is main characters' decision making that drives story narrative always. The nature of plots is decision making of the protagonist. Moreover the original screen play is finally reconstructed or improved at the post production during both film editing and sound editing. Text is not the final form of film work.

ACT1: (Establishment) Tri-Oceanic Corp.'s crew members are ordered by the CEO Miss Martin to engage in deep sea mining under supervision of geologist, the protagonist Steven Beck. (Inciting Incident) One of crew members, Buzz 'Sixpack' Parrish accidentally finds abandoned Soviet ship LEVIATHAN and brings ship records and mysterious virus contaminated vodka to their mining ship.

(End of ACT1) Sixpack arguably cheats Steven Beck to secretly share it with other crew Bridget Bowman. Dr. Glen 'Doc' Thompson and Steven Beck checks the captain's video to find out that the Leviathan was scuttled for some reason.

ACT2:(Complication) Sixpack dies from strange illness that marked with lesions along his body. Dr. Glen 'Doc' Thompson conducts medical check on all crew members. While Beck and Doc reports the infectious disease to Miss Martin, Bowman's symptoms appear and commit suicide after seeing Sixpack's mutated cadaver. The storm is also reportedly on the surface of the sea and rescue plan is delayed 12 hours. Dr. Glen 'Doc' Thompson and Steven Beck decide to flush the mutating cadavers from the ship. Unfortunately, the bodies start squirming and crew G.P. Cobb is clawed before they eject it and it escapes. Then they finally realise that the Soviet ship was scuttled after the mutagen experiment got out of control. Another crew member Tony DeJesus Rodero gets killed by a lamprey-like creature at kitchen later. The creature grows by devouring blood and plasma from the cooler at medical room, it grows tentacles to attack the crew. (Midpoint; A Point of No Return) This inspires Steven Beck to try flushing it out in the same way they did with corpses of Buzz 'Sixpack' Parrish and Bridget Bowman. (End of ACT2) Dr. Glen 'Doc' Thompson ejects emergency pods to contain mutagen, Martin claims she can't send rescue team due to hurricane, Cobb's mutation starts and infects Dr. Glen 'Doc' Thompson. The crew accesses computer to know Tri-Oceanic Corp. declares all of them ''dead'' in an ''accident.''

ACT3: (Final Confrontation) The creature Homo-Aquaticus causes more damages to the vital system of the ship and implosion is inevitable. (Solution) The crew decides to escape by dive suits. The creature is crushed by a lift as the protagonist Steven Beck escapes. A Coast Guard helicopter meets them on the surface of blue ocean. The mutant also surfaces nearby and take Justin Jones, and Steven Beck explodes the creature by throwing a demolition into the mouth. (Ending) They are dropped at a Tri-Oceanic oil drilling platform and greeted by inhumane C.E.O. Miss Martin insincerely. Then Steven Beck knocks her out. (This kind of plot point does not exist in today's Hollywood films under corporatism; it can only be allowed when lower rank officers make terrible mistakes but not the C.E.O.)

The narrative structure is perfect that it completely follows the principles of filmmaking. Moreover it decides which shot is necessary or unnecessary from the holistic view point of the entire story structure. Everything not on the track, anything out of the framework must be cut out from footage.

Technical Aspects

From the view point of methodology, we can confirm correctness of some filmmaking principles in this film. And we should also analyse specific solutions, aesthetic achievements done by George P. Cosmatos and his crew members. For being a professional film editor, I mainly focus on editing aspect. How to edit a film is about how it is photographed, how it is staged, how it is written and how the entire filmmaking process of it is managed by establishment.

1. Smash Cuts: George P. Cosmatos did not abuse ''jump scare'' trick of today. Two smash cuts are effectively made in this film. We can only see two jump scare solutions. It is a sign of good horror film in good old days. The cutting pace is swiftly changed in a sudden insert, then quickly cuts to reverse shot. The moment of attack by a fish is exactly synched with the suddenly inserted close up shot of it. The cut point is the attack moment. Editing is like visualised music if its visual-sound montage is correctly handled.

Fig.1 Elizabeth 'Willie' Williams coming through water. Slow pace. Image: Youtube
Fig.2 A deep sea fish suddenly attacks her. Image: Youtube
Fig.3 A reverse shot to capture her reaction. Image: Youtube

Another example is part of very intensified dramatic scene when the crew tries to eject the two mutated bodies. Use of refrain is dramatically enhanced the mood of the tense moment for the crew. The smash cut is combined with a series of quick cutaways. Every set of shots has its theme.

Fig.4 One of the best scenes in this film. DeJesus tells them ''I feel something.'' Image: Youtube
Fig.5 Refrain of the DeJesus's line. G. P. Cobb: "I feel something, too" Image: Youtube
Fig.6 "Somebody is alive in here!'' A synthesis to a proposition (thesis) of DeJesus's shot (Fig.4) Image: Youtube

Dialectic film montage. Fig4, Fig5 and Fig6 are a good example of Hegelian-Eisenstein dialectic solution in film art. Fig4 is a thesis (Among the crew, DeJesus finds ST), Fig5 is an antithesis ( G. P. Cobb finds it, too), and Fig6 is their synthesis (DeJesus, G. P. Cobb and more crew members find it). It achieved beautiful refrain in film editing. Of course it can't be done only by editing itself. Framing is also consciously done in this way. Then, we have a set of smash cuts.

Fig.7 Cobb insists opening the body bag. Image: Youtube
Fig.8 The creature claws Cobb. Image: Youtube
Fig.9 Cobb's reaction Image: Youtube
Fig.10 The creature claws Cobb continually. Image: Youtube
Fig.11 Another side of the creature appears. Image: Youtube
Fig.11 Cutaway of Doc. Image: Youtube
Fig.12 Cobb and others' reaction shot. Image: Youtube

Shots above have common cut points that all of them are cut when action or reaction taken place. I/O points are exactly the same with its actions or reactions. This set of short quick close shots is like Hitchcock's shower scene montage in Psycho (1960). It can be enhanced with CGI of today but it is not essentially needed in order to achieve this effect.

2. High angle following shots: The interior of the ship is built in sound stage thus using crane to do following shots from high angle is easier than location shooting. The angle is higher than other films even though there is no creature at that time in film. Following shot if it is not carefully done, it will be POV shot of somebody unexpectedly.

Fig.13 Crane camera from high angle follows movement of Cobb. Image: Youtube
Fig.14 Crane camera from high angle follows movement of Cobb. Image: Youtube

3. Continuity in single camera and multiple camera work: Although Japanese and Taiwanese films are basically made by single camera work traditionally, US blockbuster films are made by combination of single and multi-camera work as universal standard. In general, single shot is done by single camera separately, two or more group shots are done by multi-camera at the same time within the same camera movement, lighting conditions and camera setting in order to secure perfection of continuity editing.

However same continuous action of single person in multiple shots, two or more group shots are done in single camera work sometime. There are common principles which shared with Japanese filmmakers.

a. Single shots of single person in different sizes: The size or angle needs to be quite different from the previous shot. The joint between shots is almost a pause or resume of the action.

From wide shot to middle shot, then cut back to the wide shot in single camera work.

Fig.15 Elizabeth 'Willie' Williams jogging in. Image: Youtube
Fig.16 Height and angle is drastically changed. Image: Youtube

Drastic change of framing relieved the discontinuity between them. This same mechanism is frequently used in Japanese action films however Japanese films are not diverse in angles.

b. Two shot, the same actions, shots in very different size and on the same axis: Doc is medically checking Sixpack, his pause and the axis between shots are the same, only Doc is slightly moving. From wide shot to another size of shot, it is smoothly cut. The discontinuity of single work is relieved here, too due to very distanced shooting.

Fig.17 Very distanced shot of Doc and Sixpack in the medical room. Image: Youtube
Fig.18 Close shot of Doc and Sixpack in the medical room. Image: Youtube

Fig.18's positioning of camera and actors changed obviously on the axis. However it is acceptable for audiences due to match action. Fig.17 and 18 were separately shot in single camera but it eased its discontinuity by distanced shots.

c. Reverse shots can be separately made by single camera if they only cover tiny part of body or it does not cover the move or it is completely separated.

Fig.19 Dialogue between Elizabeth 'Willie' Williams and Steven Beck in a set of reverse cuts. Image: Youtube
Fig.20 OTS from the side of Elizabeth. Image: Youtube
Fig.21 Single close shot from the side of Steven Beck. Image: Youtube

Basically Fig.19, 20 and 21 can be shot in multi-camera work, especially Fig.19 and 20. They also can be shot in single camera because Fig.20 only covers tiny part of Elizabeth's head, furthermore Fig.21 is completely separated.

4. Reverse cut: It is not just mechanically dealt with. Bringing a dialogue scene by reverse cut can be purely mechanical and boring however there is a psychologically powerful reverse cut in this film without any dialogue. It is a reverse cut between eye performances of actors.

Fig.22 POV of Doc. Image: Youtube
Fig.23 Doc.finds something unusual and looks at Sixpack. Image: Youtube
Fig.24 Sixpack staring at Doc suspicisusly. Image: Youtube

Typical eye line match cut but it is special due to their brilliant acting. Fig.24 cannot be closer in order to achieve its sharpness. This reverse cut is psychologically intensified, moreover it added reality in this way.

5. Title shots: In silent montage films, different size of title shots create emotional impact. It's unchanged in modern films.

When computer evaluates suspected genetic alteration, its title on the display changed its size after the Doc's reaction shot.

Fig.25 Title appears on the display in small size. Image: Youtube
Fig.26 Doc sees the display. Image: Youtube
Fig.27 Big title on the display. Image: Youtube

This is called double impact or overtone montage by Eisenstein which reflects emotional impacts of character.

6. Quick cuts on the creature to avoid impression of being a monster suit: Like JAWS (1975) and Friday the 13th (1980), George P. Cosmatos followed minimalist tradition. However his solution is more intended to hide and quickly cutaway from the creature in order to avoid giving impression of monster suit. Monster shots are always quick cuts and partially cover parts of the creature. Stan Winston's realistic visual effects and monster design are harmonious with Cosmatos' montage. Even when the entire upper body of the creature appeared at the end, Cosmatos kept quick cuts and partially revealing parts of it.

From surface to under sea, Cosmatos only shows effective parts of the creature performance. he did avoid impression of monster suit with support from Stan Winston. Only partial revelation with quick and short action cuts can be seen. Fig.28-30 are a set of creature shots.

Fig.28 Above the sea surface, the creature attacks Justin Jones in a quick cut. Image: Youtube
Fig.29 Angle between sea surface and undersea. Image: Youtube
Fig.30 Undersea angle. Image: Youtube

The tentacle attack by the creature on Justin Jones is a quick and fast action dealt in partial revelation of its body parts. There is no holistic and long time shot for showing the creature. As the result, the creature is actually in action. Very successful montage. The next set of shots, Fig.31-33 followed the same principle. No revelation of the entire body of the creature in longer shot.

Fig.31 The creature confronts the protagonist Steven Beck. Image: Youtube
Fig.32 Only reveals parts of the body in separated shots. Image: Youtube
Fig.33 The creature and the actors are completely separated in different shots. Image: Youtube

7.Overlapping Actions: Implosion of the creature is overlapped twice in a series of quick cuts. It won't reveal the entire body of the creature in long shot. Always only partially shows effective performance and parts of it. Fig.34-39 are a set of overlapping actions.

Fig.34 Close up of the creature. Image: Youtube
Fig.35 Medium close up of the creature from the front. Image: Youtube
Fig.36 Explosion in short wide shot. Image: Youtube
Fig.37 Re-use of Fig. 34. Close up of the creature. Image: Youtube
Fig.38 Quick zoom into the inside of the creature. Image: Youtube
Fig.39 Explosion in closer wide shot. Image: Youtube

Fig.38 and 39's dynamism is dialectic in Hegelian-Eisenstein terms. Expressing the implosion by completely opposite direction of movements on screen. One is zoom in to the inside of the body; the other one is not the camera movement itself but it is an implosion itself. This is a dialectic contradiction in overlapping action editing.

Fig.40 After the explosion of the monster, a rescue helicopter leaves with protagonists. Image: Youtube

Additionally, I have to mention that the helicopter shot above is imitated and referenced in the famous Japanese surviving horror game franchise Resident Evil (1996) in a similar manner. This angle of elevation is highly optimised for taking a helicopter shot. It gives us the image or sense of ''escape'' and relief from a disaster.


FILE PHOTO: ''Loosely translated: DON’T FUCK WITH THE MOTHER NATURE. '' Image: Youtube

Leviathan (1989) is not a spiteful anti Soviet propaganda effort of Hollywood. The entire crew of LEVIATHAN is a victim, too. However this biohazard narrative ''Dangerous viruses originated in China or Russian experiments''can be seen in the western mainstream media of today. Godzilla (1954) is an antithesis to this Hollywood and American narrative which is meant to paint adversaries as origins of evil antagonists. Official narrative of news is planted in the setting of films they made.


Any part of this report may be disseminated without permission, provided attribution to the professional film writer Ryota Nakanishi as author and a link to is provided.

This film article is for educational purpose only.

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