Farewell, Marooned

I’d watched Marooned (1969) once before; it would have been late-‘seventies, or early ‘eighties, certainly post-Star Wars, and on a network screening as part of a film-season of sci-fi movies, something which happened quite a lot back then. Over the decades since, I’ve occasionally seen moments of it again during subsequent television airings. Its not a film that has aged particularly well, even if it did win the 1970 Academy Award for Special Visual Effects, something which is perhaps indicative of how much of a game-changer Star Wars would be several years later. Its littered with numerous technical goofs, too, which unfortunately undermines much of the sense of reality the film gains by using NASA assets and locations.

Watching it again this one, last time (hence this being one of my ‘Farewell…’ posts) the thing that struck me the most, and which was evidently lost on my young self way back when, was the cast. Marooned has a pretty amazing cast, largely wasted, mind, in what quickly degenerates into formulaic melodrama, but seems to indicate some ambition behind the film: Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna, David Jansen, James Franciscus, Lee Grant, Nancy Kovack and Mariette Hartley (who was a childhood crush of mine from her appearance in 1960s Star Trek). 

It is a pretty great cast, there, indeed- certainly one better than the material they have to work with, although it really has a great premise for a space movie, and indeed very prescient, predating the Apollo 13 mission of 1970 and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003, both of which lend a weight to situations in Marooned. Indeed, there are some moments which are so similar to moments in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 that one almost does a doubletake. A case of movie events mimicking real-life events that mimicked a movie. Likewise having read a book about the Columbia disaster and possible ways a rescue could have theoretically been attempted in better circumstances, its strange to see some of those proposals being dramatized in a film shot decades earlier. How extraordinary it might have seemed had Columbia’s crew been saved  in similar fashion to the rescue shown in Marooned.

What ultimately undermines Marooned is Hollywood’s understandable ignorance, of the time, of the space program and the mechanics of space travel, and of course natural technical obstacles for film-makers of the time (Kubrick’s 2001 notwithstanding). But certainly the public ignorance of the space program of the time is clearly evident as the film attempts to explain the what, where and how’s which would become largely commonplace years later but was quite alien and extraordinary in a world without digital watches or electronic calculators. 

Marooned strikes me as a film with a great, thrilling and enthralling premise that largely fails in execution- even after the popularity and success of the Apollo 13 film, there’s likely some traction in another film someday following in Marooned‘s celluloid footsteps- although I suppose one could cite The Martian as evidence that’s already been and gone.

Into The Depths

2017.37: Leviathan (1989)

levi4For any genre fan of my age, the cast is to die for: Peter Weller (Robocop, Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, The Naked Lunch), Richard Crenna (Rambo 1, 2 & 3), Amanda Pays (Max Headroom), Daniel Stern (DOA, Diner, Blue Thunder), Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters), Meg Foster (They Live)… A cast like that, you’d think Leviathan would at the very least be a poor-man’s The Abyss with a gloriously nostalgia-filled 1980’s genre cast- forget the movie, just bask in the nostalgic joy of seeing these stalwarts of 1980’s-era genre film and tv in something ‘new.’  Well, as ‘new’ as a film can be when you watch it for the first time when it is, what, something like 28 years old. You have to make allowances I guess, and just, yes, enjoy the nostalgia.

But it is so bad it isn’t even that- indeed, it’s just a stark reminder of just how good Alien, The Abyss and The Thing were, because this film is a horrible imitator of all three- a dodgy replicant, if you’ll forgive another reference to Blade Runner here, and a reminder that the fondest memories of actors can be sullied by the reality that they appeared in bad films too- talent no indicator of quality.  Actors are just working people looking for jobs/gigs, jumping from film to film, tv show to tv show. Just as long as it pays. Rarely the job turns out to be something classic or memorable. Over the years we tend to remember the good ones and forget/ignore the rest- well, this is clearly one of ‘the rest’.

Leviathan came out originally in 1989 at around the same time as Deepstar Six and The Abyss, imitation clearly the sincerest form of flattery and that year undersea thrillers were the next Big Thing (except it wasn’t, all three films failed at the box office). Well, I loved The Abyss, but steered clear of the other two. Until now, with Leviathan rising up from the depths and dragging me back down with it.

A deep-sea mining base on the ocean depths stumbles upon the sunken wreck of a Soviet vessel and unwittingly becomes contaminated by the genetic experiments that were taking place before the Soviets evidently scuttled the ship to destroy/hide their grisly work. The opening half of the film seem overly familiar but also almost gently quaint, in how the scene is set and the motley characters established- its all very Alien– indeed, the Alien nods in particular seem endless and continue behind the camera- Ron Cobb was a production designer, so the sets look like the Nostromo and indeed Deepcore from The Abyss (which he also worked on), and the score was by Jerry Goldsmith (although to be fair, it sounds nothing like his Alien score). But you know, as guilty pleasures such as Event Horizon (and better efforts like Sunshine) will tell you, there is nothing wrong with starting a sci-fi film with nods to Alien- it can almost be cosy and reassuring. The cast is along the lines of so many ensemble films like Alien, we see them at work, we see them come upon the derelict, watch them enter and stumble upon a horror that they unwittingly bring back aboard their own ship whereupon after a lull the true horror begins…. wait, what film am I watching here…? You get the idea.

But Leviathan is vastly inferior, not just to Alien and The Thing, but to both Event Horizon and Sunshine too- and if that statement makes you nervous then good for you, you’ll know to never give in to nostalgic temptation and ever give this film a try. Well, here’s one I took for the team then.

levi2Seeing Peter Weller and Amanda Pays and Richard Crenna back ‘in their prime’ as it were is always something good, but this film can’t even be saved by pleasant surprises such as seeing Amanda in the shower in her underwear, a reminder of something of a crush I had back in the day watching her in Max Headroom (God, I’d long forgotten, was I ever that young?)It’s really a pretty empty and banal film all told, sodden (well, it is underwater) with cliches and predictable plot points and general stupidity. Nothing really surprises, and to be honest it is the awful execution of everything- the cinematography and lighting (the sets are shot in such an unimaginative way devoid of tension or atmosphere), the creature effects are laughable (even with Stan Winston’s crew involved). In truth, the best thing about Leviathan is that it makes you appreciate the achievements of films like Alien and The Thing even more. It makes you realize just how difficult those films must have been to make and how much they just get so right. The casting, the photography, the music, the pacing, the visual/creature effects… they get so much so right, and that why they are deemed classics, decades later, when imitators like Leviathan just sink (sorry, couldn’t resist).