A group of scientists and military types, trapped in a remote base, discover an alien creature set upon the annihilation of the group… and perhaps all of mankind. Most genre fans will acknowledge this as the basic plot of Howard Hawks’ THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) and John Carpenter’s 1982 remake.
Both films are wonderful examples of the science fiction/horror hybrid done right, and both have their share of imitators. Two films that borrowed this blueprint made the effort to change things up by transporting the action from the icy arctic to the deep blue sea.
Set in a cheap-looking miniature, DESTINATION INNER SPACE lands a mysterious vessel just outside a Sea Lab… which appears to only be about twelve feet below the ocean surface. Beefy naval commander Scott Brady is summoned aboard to investigate, joining scientists Gary Merrill and Sheree North, tough guy diver Mike Road, eye candy Wende Wagner and “comic relief” cook James Hong. After some expository brooding, the group concludes that the mystery ship is from outer space, where there must be a lot of oceans.
Boarding the ship, our heroes discover an object that looks like an oversized cocktail weenie, and bring it aboard the Sea Lab. Lo and behold, the weenie is actually an egg, which promptly hatches into a scaly fish monster.
This beast has some pretty severe anger issues, and acts out by killing some less important characters. The remaining humans must find a way to destroy the cosmic codfish’s ship before more cocktail weenies can hatch and threaten the entire world.
Directed by Francis Lyon and released in 1966, DESTINATION INNER SPACE is sort of the kiddie pool version of Hawks’ THE THING. The script takes the checklist of every single genre movie cliché and dumps them out like a bagful of Scrabble tiles.
Fans of the cartoon series JONNY QUEST will quickly recognize Road as the voice of “Race Bannon,” but will likely be disappointed that he doesn’t look like him. The poor actors wander about looking as if they’ve lost a bet, and are forced to keep a straight face when in the same shot as the monster.
What really sinks this ship is that monster. While the design concept is intriguing, like a bipedal lionfish, the execution is sloppy. Bulky and cumbersome, the suit looks no better than something out of Irwin Allen’s television prop closet. Danger, Will Robinson!
Twenty-three years later, director George P. Cosmatos anchored his variation on Carpenter’s THING in a deep sea mining station.
LEVIATHAN pits the typical mixed bag of isolated humans against an assimilating abomination. On a routine drilling run, the miners stumble upon a derelict Soviet ship at the bottom of a chasm. Within its torpedoed bowels they discover clues to the vessel’s fate… and a coveted bottle of Russian vodka.
When one of the less charming characters sneaks a shot of the potent potable, they get more than just a hangover. Turns out that the booze was infused with a gene-altering Mickey Finn, and the resulting mutation starts chewing through the cast and absorbing their intelligence.
As the carcasses start to merge together, peppered with bits of marine critters, the crew gets a bit testy. Gloppy tentacles and spiny fangs abound as more victim parts are combined and the beast grows larger. It becomes clear that no rescue mission is coming, and the leftovers will have to kill the collective creature or suffer the same fate as the Soviet crew.
The terrific crew is lead by stoic Peter Weller, and includes reliable Hector Elizondo, odious Daniel Stern, affable Ernie Hudson and beautiful Amanda Pays, who favors us with a gratuitous shower in her underwear. Richard Crenna gives his usual solid performance as the ship’s doctor with a questionable past, and is the only one permitted any real backstory or character arc; steely-eyed Meg Foster shows up as an ice-cold corporate rat.
The script is undeniably derivative, sampling choice bits from not only Carpenter’s film, but ALIEN and JAWS as well. That considered, Cosmatos does keep the action moving at a nice clip, enhanced by a typically dynamic Jerry Goldsmith score. The film goes wildly off the rails in the final act, inserting an unnecessary additional end sequence and killing off a character that deserved to survive.
Clearly shot in a studio horizon tank, it reeks of eleventh hour editorial panic. However, unlike DESTINATION INNER SPACE, the featured creature here is much more than a scuba suit zipped into a baggy monster costume; the practical effects are mostly on point, created by the great Stan Winston’s team. That list reads like a who’s-who of talented contemporary creature designers.
Neither of these films comes close to replicating the classic depth of the films they echo, but can be enjoyed regardless… especially if paired with some of that delightful Russian vodka…