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Festivale Autumn 1997

movie review, The Relic

"How to serve monsters …"

Good monster movie making is an art. There are certain basic ingredients for success. You need an unusual and interesting setting that can become a character in the film. You need non-conformist protagonists who are intelligent and resourceful. You need secondary characters acting as both comic relief and a method of humanising and explaining the protagonists. You need selfish, unpleasant people to become monster food. And you need a really great monster.

The Relic has all of these. It's a scary ride of a movie made by people who know the conventions of this genre well and subvert the stereotyping in bold and interesting ways.

The setting is the Field Museum in Chicago. A massive rambling place with forgotten nooks, laboratories and storage areas, large exhibition galleries and subterranean tunnels leading to the docks. It's an innately spooky setting full of beetles stripping animal carcasses in glass tanks, long shelves of bottled specimens and dramatically lit galleries displaying stuffed beast dioramas.

The Museum is both essential to the plot and a definite presence in the movie. As it changes due to the monster's actions, the characters are thrown challenges based on those changes. It provides both sanctuary and killing ground for the characters. It isn't just there because someone thought it would be groovy place to let a monster loose.

Penelope Ann Miller as Margo
Penelope Ann Miller as Margo
The protagonists are evolutionary biologist Margo Green ( Penelope Ann Miller) and Lieutenant Vincent D'Agosta (Tom Sizemore). A gruesome murder in the Museum throws them together and both of them have roles to play in the solving of this murder.

Initially, it's D'Agosta's police work that reveals the clues, later it's Green's gene sequencing software and her knowledge that puts the pieces together.

Though there's a definite rapport between these two, the script doesn't make the frequently seen mistake of having them fall in love nearly instantly while being chased by a monster. There's an attraction but it is cleverly portrayed as the possible start of something between them.

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The secondary characters are chosen well. Linda Hunt as the Museum's director, Doctor Ann Cuthbert brings her usual intelligence and humanity to the role. When she's wading through a flooded tunnel, we laugh because the water's up to everyone else's chest and it's brimming against her lower lip. We laugh because she's believable and likeable.

James Whitmore's casting as Dr. Albert Frock is a wry, knowing decision. Forty five years ago Whitmore acted in another 'monster in the tunnels' movie - the one that started the whole atomic mutation monster cycle of the fifties -'Them!' He's a wry, humorous and humane presence in the film. His death in 'The Relic' mirrors the one his character suffered all those years ago. It's a easter egg hidden for the knowledgeable viewer.

The other delightful surprise is Audra Lindley's turn as the forensic expert who performs the initial autopsy. She's a gender reversal of the usual cynical coroner cracking one liners between analytical descriptions of hideous wounds. Lovely stuff.

The monster-fodder nasty characters are the usual types but having one of them being an Asian American is a good touch. Freedom from stereotyping also means that negative characters will be portrayed by members of a minority group.

Movie still - The Relic, (c) Polygram Pictures

James Whitmore's casting … it's a easter egg hidden for the knowledgeable viewer

Stan Winston is the best creature maker on the planet, no question about it. The Kothoga he creates has a combination of mammalian, reptilian and insect characteristics and it works awesomely well. Wisely they chose to hide it in shadows for most of the film. When it is revealed, it's worth the wait. It's fast, big and implacable.

A biped monster always looks like a man in a suit. This one's a quadruped, with an attitude. Winston and his crew brought it to life with a combination of men in an elaborate and painful suit, a full sized iron model and state of the art computer graphics. It looks like a real animal and moves like a cat. Some of the effects shots using the monster are things we've never seen before on film. The Kothuga is something that could exist, if not here then on another planet.

I won't spoil the plot or give away the not entirely unpredictable genesis of the monster. This film is an admittedly (and necessarily) gory one but it has been made with great attention to detail, well thought out sets and effects and at no time does it insult the intelligence of the viewer. How many genre movies can say that these days?

Click here to have your say about this movie Rating: somewhere between See It On The Big Screen and Rent Overnight.

Terry Frost

see also Ali's review

Science Fiction Film, the interesting old stuff, by Terry Frost.

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Just the facts:

Title: The Relic (Polygram)
Written by:
Amy Holden Jones, John Raffo, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Based on: Novel by Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child
Directed by: Peter Hyams
Produced by: Gary Levinsohn, Mark Gordon (Execs), Gale Anne Hurd, Sam Mercer
Edited by: Steven Kemper
Director of Photography: Peter Hyams

The Players: Penelope Ann Miller, Tom Sizemore, Linda Hunt, James Whitmore, Clayton Rohner, Audra Lindley
For session times of current films, use the cinema listings on the Movie links page. For scheduled release dates, see the coming attractions section.
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