A compelling narrative aside, the most important thing a film can do is innovate. Most of the films put out today are, in some form or another, rehashes of stories told before. Take Due Date, for example, a film that I found to be the worst of the year. At its core, it tells a tale of opposites attracting, which is a simple yet effective vehicle for a good story. It took a solid albeit overused motif and drove it deep into the ground, borrowing shamelessly from films I couldn’t count on three hands. Leviathan is good at what it does, no doubt, which is simply a creature feature sporting some impressive technical achievements and assured cinematography. When compared to the likes of Alien, The Fly, and The Abyss (which was released the same year), its candle is all but extinguished. As a result, Leviathan just feels stale and hollow, but I feel its reputation as a shameless knockoff is unwarranted.

The film’s first act is its strongest, allowing its talented cast to play with expensive toys in an underwater lab. These scenes play out in dark, harshly lit environments invoking the mystery and vastness of the ocean. It drives home the isolation the crew is enduring, their only contact to the outside world a computer monitor with a pixelated face. When they happen upon a submerged Russian vessel, the crew dons scuba gear and explore the ship. They could not muster even in their deepest, darkest nightmares what was about to happen next.

Sixpack (Daniel Stern), living true to his name, sneaks on board a flask of vodka (oh those clichéd Russians) he takes from the vessel when he returns, failing to inform the commander (Peter Weller) of his deed. Waking up with far more than just a hangover, lesions on his back and a strong illness eventually lead to Sixpack’s untimely death. Worse, after his death, he begins to mutate into a tentacled monstrosity with strangely phallic appendages. The crew now realizes, upon further examination of the tapes they procured from the vessel, that there was far more than just drinking binges transpiring on the Russian ship now known as Leviathan. The Russians on board were slipping genetic mutagens into the vodka to test on subjects, but things went haywire onboard. What were these men up to, and why? This is an interesting questioned posed in the second act, and unfortunately, it is never adequately answered.

This is where the film loses any bit of magic it had going for it. Like any slasher/horror flick that preceded it, one by one they kill off the scientists that inhabit the lab. Even truer to horror roots, they generally eviscerate the uglier ones first, saving the good looking ones so intelligent audience members will stay in hopes one of them takes their shirt off. We come close, as Elizabeth’s (Amanda Pays) conveniently white T-shirt is rendered see-through by the frigid cold waters. Yes, what was once a mysterious foray into underwater science fiction has transformed into a clichéd horror film.

What’s lacking in these scenes isn’t so much originality but any sort of palpable tension. The lack of said tension is the real culprit here, as director George P. Cosmatos fails to recognize that the payoff isn’t nearly as important as the strings that pull our protagonists towards it. The proceedings come close to being scary, but it’s fairly obvious who is going to die and who’s going to save the day.

Now here is the dilemma I face: Is this film mediocre because of its implausibility and accompanying predictability, or is it a result of its blatant similarity to its superior counterparts? Fortunately, the film is entertaining enough to recommend, so you should discover for yourself.

Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.

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