And You Call Yourself a Scientist!

Home | Index

THE RELIC (1997)

"Are you telling me that thing’s part human?"
"No, I’m saying more than that. According to this data, that thing started out as a human…."

trans.GIF (93 bytes)
relic.JPG (7767 bytes) Director: Peter Hyams

Starring: Penelope Ann Miller, Tom Sizemore, Linda Hunt, James Whitmore, Clayton Rohner, Robert Lesser, Chi Moui Lo, Thomas Ryan, Lewis Van Bergen, Audra Lindley, Constance Towers

Screenplay: Amy Jones & John Raffo and Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, based upon the novel by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Synopsis: Anthropologist John Whitney (Lewis Van Bergen) photographs a ritual performed by Brazilian natives before drinking a potion brewed from strange leaves. Whitney is then approached by a native in ceremonial dress and collapses in horror, whimpering, "Kothoga!" Some time later, Whitney tries desperately to have crates containing his specimens unloaded from the ship taking them to America. When he fails, he stows away. Once on board, however, Whitney realises that his own crates have been left behind, and howls in despair…. In Chicago, Lt. Vincent D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) and Detective Hollingsworth (Clayton Rohner) investigate an abandoned ship found floating on Lake Michigan. In the bilge, the two find a number of decapitated bodies. At the Chicago Museum of Natural History, Dr Margot Green (Penelope Ann Miller) and Dr Albert Frock (James Whitmore) examine the items sent to the museum by John Whitney: a stone artifact and a crate of leaves. Noticing a strange fungus on the leaves, Dr Green, an evolutionary biologist, takes some for study.

That night, one of the museum’s security guards is brutally killed. When D’Agosta arrives, he finds that the man’s head has been torn off, the back of the skull ripped open and the brain pulled out; an autopsy finds that the man’s hypothalamus is missing. Curious over the vandalising of John Whitney’s office, D’Agosta questions Dr Green and Dr Frock about Whitney’s expedition. Dr Frock shows him the relic that Whitney sent back, a stone carving of a god known as Kothoga. Analysing the fungus growing on the leaves, Dr Green discovers that it is full of mammalian hormones. An intruder in the museum is cornered and shot by two police officers. Despite this, D’Agosta is not convinced that the mystery has been solved, and resolves to maintain police presence at the museum’s gala opening of its new exhibit, to be held that night. Hearing strange noises in her lab, Dr Green is startled by a huge mutant beetle. After killing it, she examines its DNA and discovers that it is mixed with reptilian DNA. Realising that the beetle had been eating the fungus-affected leaves, Dr Green consults Dr Frock, who points out that eating the concentrated hormones contained by the fungus could have a massive biological effect. Meanwhile, D’Agosta and his colleagues are searching the tunnels beneath the museum. A pair of dogs break away, and one is killed. Their handler goes after the second dog and is decapitated by something hiding in the darkness. The museum’s gala comes to a sudden halt when blood drips onto some of the guests and a headless corpse falls from the ceiling. As a panic ensues and the power goes out, a number of the guests are trapped in the darkness with an unseen assailant….

Comments: Ah, The Relic…. How did I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

1. The film opens with a primitive, superstitious tribe doing a primitive, superstitious ritual. Perhaps in 1927, this wasn’t a cliché, but in 1997-?

2. After a close-up showing us that a crate is being shipped to Chicago, Illinois, we get an aerial shot of a big city. A caption then informs us that this is Chicago, Illinois. Can we please, please have an embargo placed on this kind of thing???

3. While two cops are searching a dark ship, they startle a cat that goes "rraaayyyrrr" and leaps from its perch, causing the younger cop to gasp and clutch his chest. Apparently, no-one in the film industry has ever owned a cat, or they would know that cats do not – repeat, DO NOT – behave like this. The only thing missing from this scene is a real scare immediately after the false scare.

4. We are introduced to our heroine, Dr Margot Green. She’s attractive, therefore incredulity is immediately expressed at the revelation that she’s a doctor of some kind.

5. We are forced to spend far two much time with two obnoxious little brats, all the while knowing that, Peter Hyams lacking the cajones of Guillermo del Toro, they’re not going to get killed.

6. Hearing that someone else has dared apply for the same grant that she’s applied for, Dr Green is reduced to a state of tearful outrage. I’ve got news for her: this is a nasty old world and – shock, horror! – other scientists need money as well as you!!

7. Dr Green’s boss suggests that her best chance of getting the grant is by putting on her "party dress" and showing the donors how "bright" she is.

8. The first person killed onscreen is black. Now, this being an American horror film and all, when this unidentified black guy wanders onscreen, we’re already about 95% certain that he’s about to die. Then he lights a joint, and we hope he’s made his Will and kissed his wife and kids goodbye.

9. Hearing that the last person to leave the museum was "Dr Green", the cop asks to see "him".

10. Dr Green exhibits her maturity and professionalism by throwing a tantrum when she can’t get into her lab, just because there’s a murder investigation going on.

11. Against the orders of the cops, Dr Green forces her way into the crime scene, then has hysterics when she sees the body.

12. We learn that the museum officials are worried about the murder investigation disrupting their "gala preview" because "everyone will be here, including the mayor." (Perhaps in 1927, this wasn’t a cliché….)

13. Dr Green, dedicated scientist that she is, is contemptuous when she discovers that Lieutenant D’Agosta is superstitious. She is also extremely rude to anyone she encounters whose beliefs in any way fail to gel with her own.

14. By 25 minutes into the film, Penelope Ann Miller’s habit of gasping and jumping at everything that happens has become intolerable.

15. All forensic pathologists are smart mouth wise guys. Similarly, all cops are a bunch of dumb clucks who need to have everything remotely medical spelled out to them in words of one syllable, none of them ever having done any study or picked up any knowledge while on the job.

16. No-one ever turns on the lights. Not any of the scientists in their labs, all of whom do their work by tiny little desk lamps. Not the cops, who search the entire museum with flashlights. Not the museum employees, preparing for their gala. Not the mayor, while dressing for the gala. No-one even turns them on during the gala. Instead, the guests stagger through the gloom to peer at exhibits they couldn’t possibly see properly.

17. As a corollary, why set a film in a museum and then have everything so dark that you get no dramatic benefit from the setting?

18. For no apparent reason, Dr Green goes wandering around the museum by herself (in the dark, obviously). When she hears a scary noise, she doesn’t run for the front door, but instead hides in the ladies’ – this the same day a decapitated corpse was found in the men’s.

19. Dressing for the gala, Dr Green does her own hair perfectly – in the dark!

20. An experienced cop gets himself killed by going after his runaway dog. (Actually, on second thoughts, I kind of like this – it’s payback for Ripley’s stupid behaviour regarding the ship’s cat.)

21. Experienced cops go hunting for monsters in long dark tunnels without any kind of backup.

22. The scene where blood drips onto the party guests is ripped off from Q. Okay, it’s ripped off from other films too, but I’m very fond of Q, so I resent it most on Larry Cohen’s behalf.

23. Where did the falling body come from??

24. I’ve complained that no-one ever turns on the lights in this film. Well, in fact, there are some lights – they just don’t work very well. So why are they there at all? So, during the climactic scene, they can go out!

25. The museum’s firestairs only go into the basement. Great design, guys.

26. After slaughtering half of a SWAT team, the monster turns around and goes back into the museum. Why not kill the rest of the team? Why not go out into a great big city just full of juicy hypothalamuses? Was the opportunity to kill James Whitmore just too good to pass up?

27. Why, during "the while" it takes for Dr Green’s DNA analyser to reveal what any viewer with half a brain probably worked out twenty minutes earlier, does she not change her clothes? Or is the proverbial little black dress considered de rigueur for battling genetic monsters?

28. When it corners her, why doesn’t the monster kill Dr Green immediately, the way it kills everyone else? Did it, when it was in its previously existence, always long to lick her chest and face, and figure that it would never have a better chance? Or is this yet another example of the cinematic convention that dictates that major characters never die in the same situations that kill minor characters?

29. If I see one more film with someone outrunning a fireball, I am going to puke.

30. If Dr Green had really hidden where she’s supposed to have hidden during that fire, she would have been somewhere between medium and well done by the time they found her.

Thirty ways. Well, that’s nice round number. I don’t know, maybe there is a halfway decent horror film lost somewhere amongst the mess, but I’m afraid that the cumulative effect of The Relic’s various idiocies prevents me from even trying to see it. During the early parts of this film, I found myself watching it in three- or four-minute bursts, broken by pauses where I stopped the tape out of sheer annoyance. It was then that I started making my list….

A large part of the problem is the character of Dr Margot Green. I suspect that some effort went into not making her a "typical" screen scientist, but if that’s the case, it backfired. She is intolerable. First of all she throws a massive hissy fit when she discovers that someone else has applied for the grant she’s applied for. Then she throws a second hissy fit at the person in question, another museum employee, wailing, "If I don’t get that grant I’m out of a job! My staff is out of a job!" Well, no shit, sister! Welcome to the real world! Her rival points out that (i) anyone can apply for a grant and (ii) it isn’t Dr Green’s grant until Dr Green gets it. Now, this guy is clearly the film’s resident asshole (and thus destined for a terminal confrontation with the monster) and we are certainly meant to despise him, but the fact is, he’s quite right.

After hissy fit #2a ("You really are a gerbil."), Dr Green has hissy fit #3, demanding to know why the museum funds anthropological expeditions that "that treat superstition as if it were science". Yeah, right. What could possibly be important about anthropology, huh? When her boss points out that such work brings in money that helps to fund her own work, grateful Dr Green bitches that "using superstition to bring people to the museum is like having topless ushers at the Bolshoi Ballet". In other words, no branch of science has any value or interest but her branch of science (actually, this is pretty accurate - I’ve known a number of molecular biologists who thought exactly that).

This stupidity then climaxes in Dr Green’s first confrontation with Lt. D’Agosta, when she throws hissy fit #4 over not being able to access her lab, then varies her behaviour by having hysterics at the sight of the corpse. By this stage, The Relic was twenty-two minutes old and I wanted that woman dead, dead, dead. But no such luck. She’s the heroine, and that means she’s gunna make it to the end, come what may (see Hate Points 28 and 30). In comparison, Tom Sizemore’s Vincent D’Agosta is a welcome relief. The script belts us over the head with his superstitious nature, but other than that he isn’t bad company. In fact, I liked him well enough to be glad on his behalf that no romance develops between him and dear Dr Green, even though they are kind of making eyes at each other at the end. (As I understand it, this may be due to the script’s elimination of one of the novel’s important characters). The closest we get is being forced to sit through D’Agosta’s recitation of how he came by his lucky bullet. There is no sign at all, I thank God, of the expected "how did a girl like you get mixed up in science?" scene. (I am unable to shake a gut feeling that that line was in the script but Tom Sizemore refused to say it.)

The Relic has quite a good performance by Clayton Rohner as D’Agosta’s subordinate, a nice turn by Audra Lindley as a forensic pathologist, and a brief appearance by Constance Towers, whose character unfortunately bites the big one (or rather, it bites her). The wheelchair-bound Dr Frock is played by James Whitmore, apparently unable to get enough of being killed in dark places by hideous genetic monsters. And that monster is, of course, the film’s other star. One of Stan Winston’s creations, it’s pretty impressive, particularly in the scene where it climbs up the wall and over the ceiling in order to get at a fleeing SWAT man. However, the explanation for the creature is quite another matter. The spectre of everyone’s favorite boogey-man, "genetic engineering", hangs heavily over this film. I really do wish that screenwriters could just accept that mixing the DNA of two species together is not going to give you a creature that looks like two species mixed together. Also, the suggestion that eating something’s DNA could cause you to turn into it is so stupid I hardly know where to start tearing it down – perhaps by simply pointing out that every time you eat anything you eat its DNA! It is true that viruses sometimes incorporate host DNA into their own, but they rarely infect between species, let alone between plants and animals. There is also a limit on the maximum size of the viral genome, so it simply isn’t possible for one virus to keep taking more and more DNA on board. The question of how the parasitic fungus came to be full of human growth hormones is raised but never answered, while the actual physical consequences of ingesting large amounts of these hormones are ignored altogether. The script tosses around its biological buzzwords with great enthusiasm, but for all that I suspect that, as with Mind Ripper (1995), making the monster dependent on hypothalamic factors was simply an elaborate excuse for showing lots and lots of graphic decapitations.

Footnote: Special thanks to Sean for helping me trash this baby.

Check out all the details of this movie on the IMDB