As it has always been, second-rate blockbusters blindly imitate successful forebears. Survivalist auteur Peter Hyams, who has managed to eke out a few nearly-top-shelf assignments every few years since the Nixon administration, seemed to toil in the shadow of Tony Scott’s house style for 1997’s The Relic. Adapted from the 1995 dad-fiction crapsterpiece of the same name, which made the careers of co-authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (and which also, post facto, originated their Pendergast series), the film is rife with inexpressive shadows and reprobate misuse of anamorphic widescreen— Hyams was his own cinematographer, as was his wont. The museum-monster tingler was almost nonchalantly bested later that year with Guillermo Del Toro’s Hollywood debut, Mimic. Competing with the likes of late-1996 champions, such as Scream and Jerry Maguire on their respective victory laps, The Relic was a textbook “January dump.”
20 years of hindsight have been less kind to The Relic than to several of Hyams’s other videotapes-inexplicably-provided-at-every-third-bed-and-breakfast classics, such as Timecop and Narrow Margin. Serving as your own cinematographer is a little like serving as your own defense attorney when you’re on trial for murder: you might get an acquittal, but you really shouldn’t be thinking things like “Oh, but the money I’ll save!”
Kicking things off with two false starts, The Relic draws power greedily from a disparate set of influences, reduced almost to improv cards handed to the actors. A white scientist who looks like pre-The Hangover Bradley Cooper makes a “What’s the worst that could happen?” face before quaffing a mysterious potion at a vague yet racist Amazon-natives tribal ritual. (That sound you hear is Ayahuasca-savvy Vice editors snickering at the scene’s quaintly ominous overtones.) Cut to: dried up after hallucinated night frights, the scientist is now seen accosting the loadmaster as crates of his research materials are loaded onto a slow boat to North America. His pleas falling on deaf ears, he sneaks aboard the ship. Cut to: Chicago, six weeks later. The Relic now switches gears from ooga-booga ethnographic cinema 60 years past its sell-by date to what passes for Cop Banter in the Mark Fuhrman era. “How did the custody hearing go? Did your wife take Jerry?” “I said I don’t wanna talk about it.” “Is Jerry his kid?” “No, his dog. He loved that dog.” Cue the studio laugh track.
As with Dracula before it and The Lost World: Jurassic Park several months ahead of it, the scientist’s ship has not a living soul aboard when it docks in Chicago. Not long after, a series of gruesome murders occur at the Natural History Museum. The movie that follows abandons both King Kong and Bram Stoker in favor of some Val Lewton-derived scenario: punchy academics in a dusty setting, shoring up against the imminent threat of an ancient, perhaps otherworldly critter. A haphazard mash of half-plots follows, like a battered string of Christmas lights. Museums need to make money in spite of the pure-hearted ambitions of its head researcher (Penelope Ann Miller). A horde of the city’s socialites descends upon the place just in time for the creature to kick its feeding frenzy into high gear. (Somehow, the legendary Constance Towers appears as one of the VIPs, although Hyams hides her in the shadows along with everybody else.) Jaws gives way, as Jaws derivations will, to other disaster movies: The Towering Inferno without the vertiginous heights, Earthquake without civic destruction and Marjoe Gortner, The Poseidon Adventure with an errant sprinkler system.
Daylight scenes look grim and hungover in The Relic, so it only stands to reason that, when the creature attacks Chicago’s finest and best-dressed, under cover of darkness, you shouldn’t be able to see anything at all. The beast, a prototype for nasties lately featured in the Resident Evil franchise and Netflix’s Stranger Things, is a ceiling-crawler with a Gene Simmons tongue, the better to scoop out your hypothalamus. As is the case with all poor (or, arguably, given that Stan Winston’s elder-statesman status outranked Hyams’s by leagues, poorly served) special effects, practical or digital, dim lighting is as good an alibi as any. Everything seems slightly off with the creature shots: a jittery frame rate as well as a stutter-stop hybrid of rushed-to-the-sales-floor computer graphics and Winston practicals. The editing has a perpetual too-late quality, and Hyams’s widescreen lens, knowing nothing better to do, can usually be found looking up a character’s nose.
It’s hard to determine, without conducting a detailed investigation, whether The Relic was rushed into production. The date of the novel (1995) and the date of the film (a mercy-killing January 1997) seem to suggest as much, as does the labored CGI. If you can imagine angry studio memos hovering just off to the side of every shot, The Relic will appear to you in its true form: a $60 million tax shelter without a single memorable frame, brought to completion with all the enthusiasm of cops working overtime.