When you think of the old fashioned monster movie, you think back to the Universal horror films of the thirties, the Harryhausen films of the next three decades, the mutant monster scare films of the Godzilla-era. Watching The Relic now, I’d like to posit another vintage genre – the CGI monster movie. When computer effects broke big in Hollywood in the early nineties following the success of Terminator 2, the sky seemed to be the limit. Suddenly every creature feature was going bigger, forgoing the aliens or predators in suits of yore for giant towering beasts that digitally eclipsed the entire frame. Jurassic Park proved it could be done, and in its wake there were countless followers with shiny polygons, unnatural movement and zero ounces of reality. The classics were reimaged in CGI – Godzilla, Mighty Joe Young, The Mummy, and then you got the rest, like Anaconda, Starship Troopers, Deep Rising, Mosquito and the film we have here. Where the older monster movies were routed out of socio-political fear, be it of the depression or of nuclear annihilation, the resurgence in the nineties was one of a technical kind. The computer took over, often at the expense of everything else.
Unlike Roland Emmerich or Stephen Sommers, who were born into cinema with the computer generated mindset, The Relic’s Peter Hyams, who almost always shoots and directs his pictures, is a director rooted in a more classical style. It’s tough not to get that distinction when you direct a sequel to a Kubrick film! The man behind his effects, a one Stan Winston, certainly is one of the last innovators of the old guard himself. Yet here we are with one of the biggest CG entries into the entire genre. For good, for bad, for natural history? It is set in a museum, after all, so bring out your glasses and lets ponder this nineties relic, shall we?
We start in Brazil, where some tribal artifacts of evil are being crated and loaded in a boat heading for the Chicago’s Natural History Museum. They are all part of researcher John Whitney’s (Lewis Van Bergen) “Superstition” exhibit, which looks at the artifacts of the past used to conjure spirits or simple luck, for good or for bad. When Whitney doesn’t return but his crates do, complete with a boat of massacred Brazilians, everyone suspects foul play. Since most monster movies are about creating xenophobia through stereotypes, this one posits that the murders were drug related. What else comes out of Brazil anyway, right? Well, in this case, one big, evolving, mutant monster.
Fed on some bacteria filled with animal hormones, this beast, who probably started out as a gecko or lizard of some sort, is growing by the minute. Who better to feast on than the opulent, with the exhibit unveiling selfishly being moved forward despite the iffy circumstances. There to examine the crates is a zealous government funded evolutionary biologist Dr. Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller, Carlito’s Way and early on in her career even a Tales from the Darkside episode). She’s got the little bacteria under a microscope, while lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore, Natural Born Killers¸Heat) is looking at the bigger picture. He’s superstitious himself, but he ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Both work together in trying to determine just what is going on, while the creature lurks in the sewers surrounding the museum.
Monster movies always need a group of victims worth saving, and rather than just your average Samaritans we instead get the mayor of Chicago and some of the museum doctors, including, the little, pesky Dr. Ann Cuthbert (Linda Hunt, who starred with Miller in Kindergarten Cop) and Dr. Albert Frock (James Whitmore, The Shawshank Redemption, Planet of the Apes). When bodies start turning up in the museum the whole place goes under lockdown, and with nowhere to go but inside the creature’s mouth, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for those in the Windy City. Never underestimate the power of science, though, and Dr. Green’s ability to construct a chemist’s version of the Molotov Cocktail. Sometimes, the best answer for computer generated effects is a simple dose of the elements.
The Relic is old fashioned formula to a T, offering teasing, practical glimpses of the monster for the first two acts before finally letting it run loose in all its synthetic glory. It casually coalesces the idea of The Other from another country as the heart of evil, bolstering yet again that whether it’s in terms of firepower or mindful science, the Americans just about surmount anything. It’s safe, feel good view towards death and destruction is something that was antiquated even during the first wave of monster movies. You’re tipped on early off that this monster has nothing hanging between his legs when he spares a couple of bratty kids and instead goes for the black pot smoking security guard. Hell, even Frankenstein took out a child. Hyams makes it clear right from the start that the audience has nothing to worry about – the formula will ensure that all the characters you like will live, and any of the ones you don’t, or the ones who are too old to feel sorry about, won’t.
The script is credited to four different writers, one of which is Amy Holden Jones (director of The Slumber Party Massacre), which is the first tip that this was a studio piecemeal where any of the daring insight of any of the four writers original scripts would be discarded for one safe, populist whole. Admittedly, there are a few bits of good, character driven humor, like when D’Agosta, who we hear previously is upset over losing custody of his dog in a divorce settlement, bellows without provocation “Let me ask you something…how the FUCK does someone get custody of a dog?”. I'd wager to guess the feminist zinger by the coroner, "his brain is small, even for a man" also comes from Jones. There are some nice recurring character moments too, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones was the one brought in to add color to all the formula. The script does show hints of scientific critique - the final dissolve between the creature’s foot and the salvaged museum certainly grasps at historical relevance, at any rate. Overall, though, it’s featherweight, and a pale imitation of better, subterranean inner-city monster movies like Alligator.
The monster, too, seems culled from better films, and it seems as if even effects great Stan Wilson was stuck reeling through his back catalog for this one. The monster’s got the mouth of a predator, the texture of a Jurassic rex and the hair of his spider-like contributions to Carpenter’s The Thing. His pratical effects before the CG takes over for the finale are average at best, usually reduced to teasing shots of feet on the ground or tails swinging in the shadows. Hyams, who as a one man cinematographer-director is probably too taxed for time to worry about multiple lights, keeps the light usually relegated a single source, making it even tougher to make out any of Winston’s work. Hyams is seduced by shadows, as he says in the extras, but rather than create ambiance it’s more a too dark distraction with lens flares aplenty.
While it is nice to see underutilized nineties actors like Miller (who’d pretty much disappear after being almost ubiquitous in Hollywood), Sizemore, Whitmore and Hunt get some due screen time, you can’t help but wish for something more. Running overlong at 105-minutes, the film is one dark stalking scene after another, buoyed only by the erm, chemistry, between the leads. As a relic of a genre infatuated with technological innovation fused with safe ideals (thanks, Spielberg) The Relic certainly is museum-worthy. As entertainment, though, you keep waiting for Scream to shake the film and beg that it grows up. They don’t make them like this anymore…and good riddance to that!
When the opening Paramount logo is ridden with scratches and specks, you know you’re in for some rough waters ahead. Like their other Paramount acquisition, Jade, Lionsgate’s transfer of The Relic is itself a bit archaic, with grain and a lack of overall detail looking little better than it used to on that old Paramount DVD. Even worse than Jade, though, is a significant softness to the image. It looks more like an upconversion than something legitimately high def. To its credit, there is a lot of bandwidth devoted to the film itself, which is good considering all the bursts of light from black that Hyams employs could easily have been prone to some major artifacting. There aren’t any major compression issues evident, though, so while the print may not be sharp, or even pristine with all those little black specks that show up, it’s at least properly compressed. Of course, the whole thing is so dark due to Hyams’ reliance on one-point lighting that it’s often tough to notice anything anyway. Please note that all the screenshots included have been considerably brightened compared to the original source. The screenshots were so dark that I couldn't even make out which shot was what. With all that CGI, it's probably a good thing!
Again, like Jade, if the picture is lacking then the sound certainly isn’t. This DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track has some punch to it, and once more does a good job at filling the rears with effective ambient content. While the surround effects are mostly just a generic ambiance pushed to the four rear speakers, there are a few inspired usages of direction, such as the water dripping sounds that echo during the sewer scenes. Other times there are big thumps or crunches that come out of the back corners that sound so real they can be confused for reality. With this track Lionsgate continues to prove that they’re doing justice to the added audio range provided by HD.
Okay, so Jade had a bunch of extra footage previously released that was not included on the barebones Blu-ray, so imagine my surprise when The Relic, which had previously been a bone dry early Paramount release, comes outfitted with a few substantial new extras. New to this disc is an on-screen interview with Peter Hyams as well as a solo feature-length audio commentary. Hyams, an art school graduate, certainly has no trouble finding things to say. His theories on film and cinematography can seem kind of half baked at times, but for the most part he’s engaging far more in conversation than he is with any of his films separately. In the 11-odd minute interview, “The Filmmaker’s Lens”, Hyams discusses how he broke into the business, his view on shadows as central to storytelling and the history that led him to The Relic. It’s pretty good.
The audio commentary, despite overlapping with some of what Hyams says in the commentary, is still much more enlightening. Hyams remembers much and says even more, and this track is pretty filled with anecdotes and the like. Considering Hyams was both the DP and the cinematographer, he’s got a lot more ground to cover than your usual solo commentary participant would, and it shows here.
Rounding off the disc is the original theatrical trailer.
The Relic is a clunky old monster movie with clunky old CGI. The solid cast help elevate it above the norm, and the script has a few sporadic bits of wit likely penned by The Slumber Party Massacre’s own Amy Holden Jones. Still, it can’t get past the safe, predictable story and the uninspired effects from the otherwise reliable Stan Winston. The video upgrade certainly won’t have fans lining up at the museum, but the sound once again proves that Lionsgate is fast becoming one of the leaders in HD sound mixing. The extra material with Peter Hyams is a welcome bonus, and fans should likely go away happy. All others, spend your time getting STDs from the museum in Dressed to Kill instead. Those things stick around, which is more than anyone can say for this ephemeral mid-nineties popcorn relic.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
I have fond memories of this one,it got a great reaction in the theater.Yes,it is an old fashioned monster movie but I felt it was kind of lighthearted and fun,ala some early 80's outings like Q.Perhaps it wasn't aiming very high but it hit what it aimed at,it's an entertaining monster flick.
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