Directed by Peter Hyams. Starring Penelope Ann Miller, Tom Sizemore, James Whitmore. (1997, R, 110 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Jan. 10, 1997
With no undue hype, The Relic can be hailed as a new quality benchmark in the always competitive field of movies about part-gecko, part-bug, part-human, hypothalamus-munching, breast-fondling genetic mutant monsters. All facetiousness aside, the new offering from Peter Hyams (Capricorn One, The Presidio) isn’t nearly as original as that summary makes it sound. Much like the DNA-scrambled beast to which the title alludes, this film is a chimerical chop-shop product, consisting mostly of spare parts pulled from Alien, Jurassic Park, and even The Ghost and the Darkness. Director-cinematographer Hyams, who’s actually a pretty fair hand with sci-fi and suspense material, samples Alien most heavily in this gory yarn about a mythical South American demon critter who’s reborn (some mumbo jumbo involving retroviruses and brain hormones) and ends up terrorizing rich philanthropists trapped in a natural history museum. Once you get past that Mystery Science Theater 3000-ready plot, the suspense stuff is not too shabby. The aforementioned Alien parallels kick in via Hyams’ skillful transformation of the museum’s lower chambers into a claustrophobic labyrinth of horrors reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s dank, shadowy spaceship Nostromo. Repeating the Alien carnival ride, with Penelope Ann Miller as a fair-to-middling Sigourney Weaver fill-in, is enjoyable enough. However, the downside of such faithful tributes is a near-inevitable emergence of The Copy Is Never as Sharp Syndrome, and that’s certainly the case here. Entire scenes are ritualistically quoted from Scott’s original, and at times you can almost hear the vigorous pencil-scratch noises of Hyams checking off items from his subgenre feature list. And many of the basics are competently handled here. Ace animator Stan Winston, who also contributed heavily to Jurassic Park and last year’s The Island of Dr. Moreau remake, has fashioned a suitably ghastly monster that pinches necks and torsos asunder with almost palpable glee. Screenwriter Amy Holden Jones pumps a few extra ergs of creative energy into the dialogue, resulting in surprisingly fresh interaction between co-protagonists Miller and Sizemore (the poor man’s George Clooney or is he trying for Kevin Spacey?). Veteran TV actress Audra Lindley even contributes a short but juicy scene as a mordantly funny coroner. The Relic’s blood-and-guts index is way off the scale, but more by virtue of sheer quantity than startling innovations in gorehoundry. Long story short: This film stands as a near-perfect specimen of two hardy cinema archetypes – the cheesy but diverting creature feature and the weekend bargain matinee.