One of my childhood obsessions was the Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Once the VHS came out, I watched it, no joke, every day for more than a month. What drew me to it was the imagination that went into creating its rendition of the lost city of Atlantis, as well as the vehicles commissioned for the search party. The Digger? Badass. The guardians that form a protective shell around the city? Badass. The flying fish hovercraft that shoot lightning out their mouths? Badass. But one thing stands above all that as the single most badass thing in that movie—the Leviathan.
The lore reads like this: the Leviathan protects the hidden entrance to the sunken city. It’s a guard dog, in short, and a mighty effective one. The search party’s first clue of its existence is the massive ship graveyard blanketing the ocean floor, with vessels dating back to when humans first realized wood can float. It dwarfs modern ships, comes decked out with massive mandibles and armor that can withstand torpedoes, and can shoot lightning from its whiskers. It’s a literal killing machine.
But here’s the caveat about the Leviathan—it’s effective at its job, but it’s not efficient at it. Watch the scene where it attacks the Ulysses, the expedition submarine, but don’t start where it takes the first shot. Start when it awakens. It doesn’t just go for the insta-kill, even though it could. Rather, it bats the submarine around and charges headfirst at it, and before that, it skulks around it, like a leopard waiting to pounce on its prey.
From a directing standpoint, the reason the Leviathan jumps through all these hoops is so that the heroes stand a chance. The skulking shots are thrown in to add suspense, and if it instantly gg no re’d the main cast, that’d be the end of the movie. So, to get around that, you add a delay to the submarine’s destruction. The audience gets to see this threatening beast in extended action, and the heroes get the chance to make a break from it. And it’s all of that padding to its encounter which makes the Leviathan terribly inefficient at its job at best and at worst makes the scene come off as poorly constructed. But all those notes written, as you’ve undoubtedly guessed from the title of this article, it’s what gives the Leviathan a personality.
Strip away all that suspense and tension mumbo-jumbo and you give yourself room to ponder why the Leviathan, whom I shall from henceforth refer to as Crabby, despite the facts that it’s a.) a lobster and b.) would zap me to ashes for such a silly moniker, does what it does. It might not immediately attack the submarine because it’s determining if it’s a threat or is putting itself on standby, prepping up an ambush in case it veers too closely to the oceanic corridor leading to Atlantis. More likely, it’s savoring its prey the way a connoisseur might appreciate the smell and texture of a meal before taking that first bite. Most definitely, it’s curious.
Crabby has this moment where it grabs the Ulysses with its smaller mandibles and inspects it. The film’s protagonist, Milo Thatch, falls against the orange pane of the observation deck and finds, to his horror, an eye of Crabby watching him. It doesn’t attack during this moment, and it makes no motion to attack. It’s just floating there, near the bottom of the northern Atlantic, taking note of the creatures, the people, that built the craft in its grasp, and when you take a moment to watch Crabby watching the sailors and passengers within the submersible, it leaves you wondering, what is that machine thinking?
Watch Crabby’s attack from start to finish and take notice of its behavior, or more specifically, its hostility. It throws the first punch, but none of its attacks are particularly damaging to the submarine. It only jostles the crew and bangs the vehicle around, and it isn’t until the crew start volleying torpedoes at it that it ramps up its aggression. It destroys the Sup Pods, the Ulysses’s two-person attack drones, and plays target practice using streams of lightning. Crabby’s whole demeanor changes from inquisitive crustacean to merciless predator, which isn’t to suggest that it would’ve let the Ulysses free, but its drastic mood shift shows that it has a brusque temper and no forgiveness.
The easiest way to display a character’s personality is through their dialogue. Someone declining an offered doughnut with “I’m fine, but thank you” is infinitely more polite than someone who declines with “I’d rather gag on rocks.” When you take away, or never give, a character speech, expressing their thoughts and emotions relies on their actions, behaviors, and gestures. Accomplishing this might seem like a challenge, but think about dogs, particularly yours if you have one. Your pooch can’t speak, obviously, yet within a snap you can shoot off their personality down to the T. Why’s that? Because you see how they act and react. Even if you don’t have a dog yourself, you’ve surely seen other pet owners walking their fur babies and got an immediate idea of what the dog was like because they either went up to a stranger with their tails a-wagging or started barking at them. Actions may be simpler than words, which can be fluffed up or even used deceptively, but they can show a character’s true colors if you’re paying attention.
Do I believe the filmmakers intentionally gave the Leviathan a personality? No. Their primary objective was to make it a legitimate threat to the search party while also reining in its destructive tendencies so that the movie didn’t end right there. But it is fun to think that this giant mechanical lobster whose sole job is to smash up anything that comes near the submerged tunnel leading to the lost city is just a curious little bugger, though one with a short fuse and an appetite for destruction.