Lionsgate // 1997 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // April 23rd, 2010
The Next Evolution in Terror
The '90s were a wonderful time for monster movies. After Michael Crichton hit the big time by way of a little dinosaur book brought to the screen by Steven Spielberg, the floodgates were opened. What followed was a series of literary adaptations based on pulp best-sellers penned by Crichton wanna-bes. When all else failed, Hollywood could turn to the tried and true method and just rip off Alien again. The Relic is the best of both worlds; it's an Alien rip-off, AND based on a book that some may deem to be very Crichton-like. Originally released as a bare-bones DVD in the early days of the format, Paramount's cult suspense thriller has hit high definition, but is it worth the effort?
Penelope Ann Miller (The Shadow) plays Margo Green, the kind of spunky scientist we only see in movies. Her job at the Chicago Museum of Natural History generally consists of fighting for grants, hanging with her boisterous staff, and shootin' the breeze with the administration. Meanwhile, Tom Sizemore (Black Hawk Down) plays Chicago homicide detective Vincent D'Agosta, the only smart cop on a force full of morons, with a superstitious bent that borders on insanity.
These two movie clichés collide when a hapless security guard at the museum winds up separated from his brain, and his head separated from his body. What does a murdered security guard have to do with an empty ship from South America? Why the hell did the museum's resident anthropologist mail an empty crate from South America? What the heck happened to said anthropologist? Will the museum be able to open its new exhibit on time? Why is the museum's head of security such an arse? Why is the mayor such an arse? Why is the sniveling researcher gunning for Margo's grant such an arse? And Why is there a big rhino-lizard-dinosaur thing running around lopping heads off?
It all sounds pretty cheesy on paper; museum terrified by ancient creature from South America as cops struggle to get everyone out alive while simultaneously butting heads with bureaucracy. One by one, people die in horrible fashion, while our plucky heroine forms a partnership with our gruff cop and unravels the mystery behind said hideous creature. It's been done a couple of hundred times since Jaws and Alien first got us peeing our pants in the '70s, and more often than not these pale imitators have fallen flat on their faces. Surprisingly enough, The Relic not only manages to save its chin from a bad skinning on the museum steps, but rises above plot absurdities to become one of the better imitators.
We all know the plot and can telegraph every move at least two steps ahead of the characters, but it's the dialogue and the characters themselves that really goes a long way to endear the film. At the head of the pack are Penelope Ann Miller and Tom Sizemore, who take the material and just run with it. Sizemore is excellent, suitably gruff and rolling with the punches when they're dished out. He handles the business better than actors twice his pay grade who show up in these kinds of films, and it never feels like he's on cruise control or working for a paycheck. D'Agosta has a human side to him that these "hard-ass" type characters are usually lacking and it definitely adds another dimension to his performance. Penelope Ann Miller has us rooting for her almost from the get go. Not only is she cute as a button, but she sells her unlikely role as a scientist with conviction. Her pluckiness never comes off as too precocious, and she never crosses the line into Ellen Ripley "woman of action" territory, which adds another layer of believability to an otherwise unbelievable flick.
The supporting cast is equally engaging, from Robert Lesser's (End of Days) great portrayal of Mayor Owen, whom I now refer to as the most kick-ass mayor in moviedom; to excellent, if brief supporting turns from the late James Whitmore (The Shawshank Redemption) and the always awesome Linda Hunt (The Year of Living Dangerously) as the benevolent mentor and benevolent museum manager respectively.
The other two stars of the film are director Peter Hyams (End of Days) and Stan Winston's awesome creature, the C'Thoga. Hyams had his brushes with success (and failure) over the years, but never has he felt more in control and effective than here. In spite of a slow narrative start, The Relic never feels ponderous or slowly paced. Hyams (who was the Director of Photography as well) gives the film an oppressively dark look without the affair ever becoming too murky or visually incomprehensible. It all looks great, and gives the film a sort of distinct appearance and feel. Editing is also tight enough to ratchet the tension throughout the film until the final act hits and the carnage floodgates spill wide open. When those gates do spill, the gore is delicious and sure to please anyone looking for a good kill sequence. I still feel badly for those poor SWAT guys who try to get inside the locked down museum through the skylight.
This brings me at last to the late (GREAT) Stan Winston's hell spawned death machine. The C'Thoga is, for lack of any more subtle terms, freaking awesome. Like all great movie monsters, you don't get a great look at this guy until late in the film, but when you do, hoo boy! This gigantic rhino shaped beasty just pummels through scenery like an unstoppable juggernaut, with a fearsome visage that crosses Predator's extraterrestrial hunter with a hulking primordial killer out of Isla Nublar. The animatronics are top notch and dripping with goo, and when CG-ified the darkness of the film goes a long way toward disguising the inadequacy of the period's effects work, save one scene when the thing is tearing through the museum archives on fire in the final reel. It manages to look amazingly bad ass and totally laughable at the same time.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the film's excellent sound design. The 7.1 Master Audio sound mix is a keeper. Everything is razor sharp and very well separated, and when the carnage hits, this thing is one booming disc. Even in quiet scenes there's plenty of background noise that's well separated and enveloping; John Debney's score is a solid effort, if not completely exemplary, that's mixed very well into the proceedings.
Lionsgate's treatment of The Relic on Blu-ray won't exactly blow your mind. The VC-1 1080p image is extremely soft most of the time, more like an upscaled DVD than a real high-def master. I noticed a few specks of dirt on the print, and there's definitely more than a little edge enhancement if you look for it. DNR is present, but not to the point that grain has been completely eliminated, and I didn't notice any blurring or waxy faces. Black levels are pretty solid, which is definitely a good thing, considering how damn dark the whole affair is. The image just never really rises above what one might expect from a DVD source. That said, considering the age of the old DVD release, this one is definitely a worthy upgrade for fans. Hey, Lionsgate did see fit to sweeten the pot with a few extras, so that's something. There's a commentary track with director Peter Hyams, and a brief interview segment with him as well. It's not much, but it's better than the old DVD.
While it's definitely an upgrade from the old barebones DVD release, this one is hardly a showstopper, technically speaking. That said, the movie is an entertaining, blood-soaked creature feature from the Jurassic Park decade that plays surprisingly well over 10 years on.
Free to go and eat its fill of hypothalamuses...hypothalami...whatever.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R