20 Years On: “The Relic”

The creature feature has been a Hollywood staple for decades. Some are better and more memorable than others, but the one thing that they all have in common, they tend to be a lot of fun. No matter the true level of good or bad, you can always rely on being thoroughly entertained. While the Paramount Pictures film “The Relic”, based on the novel by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, may not fall squarely in one camp or the other, depending on who you ask, it’s still worth another go around. The reason is mainly because the film is now entering it’s 20th year since being released. Or, which could very well be the case, a first viewing is now in store as the discovery of this film could be happening at this very moment.

Creature In The Dark Museum
The thing about a creature feature is, it’s only as good as the monster wrecking havoc. In some cases, this isn’t true, but if you’re not the type of person who enjoys badly done CGI creatures terrorizing innocent people, a la a SyFy Original Movie, then you’re going to want the best designed creature possible. Fortunately for this film, regardless of what you think of the final product, the man behind the creatures look, feel and believability was none other than legend Stan Winston, may he rest in peace. If that rings a bell it’s because he had a hand in creating the dinosaurs for “Jurassic Park”, crocodile for “Lake Placid”, and the Terminator effects for “The Terminator”, to name a few. His work ultimately led to the creation of the Stan Winston Studio, which would also see many other notable creatures and effects come from there over many year.

The creature, known in the film as the Kathoga monster, is a nasty and vicious one. It’s masterfully designed. So much detail and so many parts, it’s one that should be seen by anyone who enjoys this type of film. While the scares created for this film, with this creature, weren’t the best, the creature is certainly scary. Even though I’ve seen the creature enough times, I still managed to be frightened a bit. Through some CGI and practical effects, Winston and his team brought to life one of my favorite characters, which I just rediscovered today. This is exactly why I love revisiting films, especially when it’s celebrating a birthday.

While the creature helped in frightening me a bit, it does come with a noticeable negative aspect. The director made the good/bad choice of plunging the film in near total darkness. This film is supposed to be of the horror variety, so I guess nothing says horror like people being chased through the dark. While this persistent darkness, brought on by the nighttime and power failure set up, is a bit unfortunate it does come with an upside. Who knew?! The Kothoga monster never looks crappy. Again, Winston and his practical, animatronic effects and well done CGI are to thank for this. Sometimes with CGI in use, the effects don’t always look great, especially with older films. I think of how the 2005 version of “King Kong” looks, and that it’s not bad effects, it’s that there’s probably too much light and other lighter colors that make it possible to tell how fake everything is. Here, with all that darkness, blending things in and attaining that realistic quality was a lot easier with darkness. If that wasn’t it or something close to it, then audiences surely got lucky.

Thrill Of The Mystery
I said this film was supposed to be of the horror variety and I meant it. It doesn’t really feel like it should be solely classified as a horror film. Mainly as it fails at that simple task. There were no effective scares. Everything was about the jump. However, there are some other genre categories that this film falls into a lot better. It’s a thriller and a mystery film.

There’s the first overall mystery of why one of Penelope Ann Miller’s colleague sent a crate with just leaves? Then it turns into, what’s on the leaves and why are they testing positive for a specific set of concentrated hormones? Shortly thereafter, mayhem begins. People start dying. So, why and who or what is killing them? It’s surprisingly well laid out. Little by little things just get weirder and weirder. The hook is in you. I myself had this deep need to know, even though I already did. I guess I can credit that to Preston and Child. If not for them, this fascinating science fiction story wouldn’t exist at all.

The thriller aspects come into play because of the Kothoga monster and how it was slowly revealed. It was never all at once. I don’t think it was until the last 30 minutes or so when we finally got the full on view of it. But before then, it was just glimpses or what we thought were the monster, which characters didn’t know existed yet. Or, for Miller, courtesy of a decent sequence, it was just strange breathing sounds and being in the new superstition exhibit. While not completely effective, it showed what was capable with this story and the monster, and those involved in bringing it to the screen. It’s where I got my first bit of excitement and fun, and then I kind of groaned at the realization of what Miller was hearing. One area of good suspense, which alone amazed me, was the big finale. The showdown between the Miller and the Kothoga. After many other decent moments, which all predictably ended with a lazy jump scare, it turns out the writers and director wanted something to send audiences away a little on edge. And so they did. It was a good sequence that effectively had me worried. I’m not sure why. To be able to create that kind of sequence, and after a so-so film and many years since I last saw it, and still have me somewhat scared, is another reason I’ll forever enjoy this film.

Science Gone Wild
Another few reasons to love and enjoy this film, at least once, is that the characters who populate this film aren’t just random and unlucky. Well, not all and not really. Miller’s character, along with Linda Hunt’s, James Whitmore’s and Chi Muoi Lo’s, are all scientists. They work at a museum. Miller, as she states, is an evolutionary biologist. Not a bad job to give the lead character. This aspect alone sets these characters apart from others, and is responsible for making this film even more interesting to me. Science can sometimes do that. It also helps, because Miller’s character doesn’t have too many stand out moments. She’s by and large, helpless. That cliché type of female character who only screams and runs around behind someone else, as they seek safety. That being said, during the finale she does use science to her advantage and it’s pretty amazing on its own. It certainly makes up for the other boring aspects of her character.

The other aspect to love, that involves science, is that the Kothoga monster isn’t just some random and hidden creature. He came about through a lot of genetic altering. The film doesn’t go so far as to say it was anyone specifically, in that Michael Crichton Jurassic Park sort of way or the Robin Cook Mutation way, but does state that somehow, the DNA of the Kothoga changed. It started as one thing and solely morphed into the giant deadly creature. So, not only do audiences get a deadly creature to watch terrorize people and perplex scientists, but you get an interesting start to a broader conversation on genetic engineering. How many films can do that?

The suspenseful trailer:

Original Release Date: Jan. 10, 1997

Director: Peter Hyams

Writers: Amy Jones, John Raffo, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver

Starring: Penelope Ann Miller, Tom Sizemore, Linda Hunt, James Whitmore, Clayton Rohner, Chi Muoi Lo, Thomas Ryan, Robert Lesser, Diane Robin and Lewis Van Bergen

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