Judge Brett Cullum is alive to the exquisite irony of this film's title.
"You think you can just open Pandora's box and close it again?…Everything you value in this world I gave to you, you ungrateful piece of shit!"—Richard Wells
Godsend has a great premise, ripped right out of today's headlines, and a great cast. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for one thing, the movie could fall apart.
Facts of the Case
Paul (Greg Kinnear, As Good as It Gets) and Jessie Duncan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, X-Men) lose their only child, eight-year-old Adam (Cameron Bright, The Butterfly Effect), in a horrific car crash. Richard Wells (Robert De Niro, Analyze This), an old professor of Jessie's, shows up out of the blue and offers them a radical option. He says he can clone Adam and give the grieving couple back their son. He'll be back in their life as an exact copy created from stem cells.
After the couple decides to go ahead and make a clone of their child, things seem to go great. The family moves out of their unnamed city to an unnamed suburban area to start again. And Adam seems to be fine—until right after his eighth birthday party, which coincides with original Adam's death. Suddenly he is having visions of dead people, and his behavior alters radically. They are all now in uncharted territory, and nobody seems to be sure what to make of it. Are memories from the previous Adam's life coming back to haunt clone Adam? Is this a normal genetic defect that Adam always had? Is something even more sinister going on? Is this God punishing them for tampering with His plan?
An original setup for a thriller, a great cast—Godsend seems to be right on track for the first half hour. Then something strange happens. Wait! The movie is suddenly becoming a clone of The Sixth Sense—little boy sees dead people. Huh? Are clones supernaturally gifted? Does Dolly the clone lamb see dead sheep? Still, the movie has some genuinely creepy if cloned scenes. Then we reach the hour point, and everything seems to fall apart. Who's responsible for this? I felt like someone had altered the DNA of my DVD player. Godsend in the end turns out to be not that great. What starts well deteriorates in the last reels of the movie.
You can't blame the cast. Greg Kinnear is likeable and quite believable as Paul Duncan, a nice biology teacher. He turns in a toned-down performance that communicates a lot nonverbally. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos actually makes herself look dowdy for the role, and she acquits herself nicely as a legitimate actress. Nobody will ever convince me she doesn't have the goods to be a bigger star than she already is. Robert De Niro as a doctor with a God complex? That's a no-brainer. Cameron Bright, the kid who has to play Adam One and Adam Two, is better at playing the nice Adam, and he has trouble looking menacing when it is called for. Yet he's still up to the task.
The concept is brilliant. Cloning and stem cell research are controversial and make great fodder for a horror movie or thriller. The idea of cloning a child is intriguing and unsettling. Godsend seems to believe that even the behavior of the clone would be the same regardless of social conditioning or major events in the clone's life. It also implies that memories might be contained at a cellular level. Even the idea of raising a child to be like a previous child is a twisted and scary thought. Had the movie tackled more of the spiritual and moral issues it could have really been something. Thrillers like The Other and The Boys from Brazil have covered this territory nicely in the past, and here was a chance to update those ideas. Nick Hamm seems like a capable director to do this: The first act is tight and precise when it could have easily become maudlin and like a feature on Lifetime or Oxygen. He paces his film well and doesn't let us linger on the horror of the accident that kills Adam. Many moments are just right, and his talent is obvious. Just watch the entirely nonverbal exchange between Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos when they decide to go through with this ghoulish experiment. Hamm wisely avoids any CGI special effects and relies instead on in-camera tricks.
So what happened? Two things: The script is too safe, and the studio forced the movie to be recut according to test screenings. Rather than exploring what the heart of the matter is when we talk about cloning, the film becomes a by-the-numbers thriller with a twist ending that fails to surprise. Nick Hamm says he wanted to make a terrifying movie set in domestic life like the original The Stepford Wives, but no such luck: The movie offers few scares, and it is limited by the youth of the actors involved in what could have been the most horrific scenes. The movie was screened for test audiences, and they wanted the happiest of the five endings that had been filmed. The fact that five endings were shot meant that the filmmakers were shooting this movie without an ending. The studio thought the original scripted ending would be cost prohibitive and forced the filmmakers to compromise. The result is a film that plays everything safe and becomes pedestrian in the end. In short—they wussed. They made a not very thrilling thriller without a satisfactory twist, and then they were presumptuous enough to leave it open for a sequel. Now that thought actually scares me.
Lions Gate bravely gives this movie excellent treatment on DVD. The transfer is purposefully dark and murky, since the director (Nick Hamm, The Hole) wanted a David Fincher (Fight Club) look to the film. Edge enhancement is very low, and the transfer is artifact-free. The 5.1 sound mix does the movie justice as well. It's a quiet movie, but the sound is in full throttle during scares. I jumped several times when all five of my speakers kicked in with a musical stinger. Also, the extras are phenomenal. Director David Hamm and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau provide commentary. All four of the alternate endings are included, and these feature optional commentary with Hamm and screenwriter Mark Bomback (The Night Caller). Menus are dazzling—all based around the cloning and DNA motif.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie is not horrible, by any means—just common. The greatest sin for a movie is to promise the extraordinary and deliver the predictable and banal. Some people will enjoy the movie on its own merits, and Godsend could be a great candidate for a rental. But will it stand up next to your favorite horror movies starring dastardly evil children? Probably not. Enjoy the nice camera work, the actors struggling to make things work, and the pretty good opening. If you turn the movie off after 45 minutes you may walk away thinking it was good and underrated. It's worth a look if only for the premise, and everybody in this film deserves an A for effort. Lions Gate delivers a great DVD.
Terrific timely premise, a stellar cast, and a script compromised by studio tinkering and test screenings. They should have just gone for it. Godsend is forgettable, and that's a real shame. Nothing irks me more than a movie with promise that goes unfulfilled. The ending is delivered to us lukewarm when it should have been boiling. Test screenings should be outlawed: If you play safe, you never win big. Why can't Hollywood get that? Godsend has effectively cloned all that is wrong with the studio system today.
The makers of Godsend are hereby sentenced to clone their own movie and improve its DNA. Come back with a better script, and stop listening to test screening audiences. Grow some testicles from those stem cells you gathered in the lab. Lions Gate is given a minimal fine but is free to go and make great DVDs…on the condition that they find a better movie to lavish all this attention on.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director David Hamm and Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau
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