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Mar 23, 2008

My Old Reviews #3 The Relic (1997)

Good monster movie making is an art. There are certain basic ingredients for success. You need an unusual and interesting setting that can become an extra 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 characters of the protagonists. You need selfish, unpleasant people to become monster food. And you need a really great monster.

The Relic has all of these ingredients. 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.

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 scientific 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.

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 to find.

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.

The monster itself, created by Stan Winston, is impressive and impressively realistic. Unlike other monsters from the past, this one is unlike anything you've seen before in a movie. As much as the script and acting, Winston's creation takes this film out of the ordinary.

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