If you can buy Penelope Ann Miller as a doctor of evolutionary biology, you can buy just about anything, and that certainly includes the fusion of genetics and voodoo behind "The Relic." But Peter Hyams' film isn't about fact, or even narrative fiction. It's about sound and light, and for much of the time its reliance on purely visceral terror keeps one plastered to one's seat--and, except for the occasional involuntary outburst, very, very quiet.
It's a thrill ride, of course, one with an overly generous helping of gross-out shots and alarming cuts. Miller, as the pert and principled Dr. Margo Green, may be rather hard to accept as one who spends her life among bone-scouring beetles and fund-lusting lab wonks. But the all too rarely seen Tom Sizemore as Lt. Vincent D'Agosta--who's investigating the gruesome murders at Green's Chicago museum--is believably beleaguered. Hyams' own cinematography (he does double duty here) is for much of the time a masterwork of half-light and the sound--"The Relic" should be seen only in theaters equipped for it--may be the real star of the picture.
Hyams the director ("Sudden Death," "Timecop," "The Star Chamber") operates at too much of a fevered pitch for things not to eventually get out of hand--accelerating violence and horror eventually hit maximum velocity and warp into nonsense, no matter how erudite the script. But for much of the movie, apprehension prevails. And that's because "The Relic"--imagine "Predator" crossed with "Phantom of the Opera"--operates on the most basic, and soundest, of dramatic principles: What we can't see is always the most terrifying thing of all--far scarier than anything cooked up in the makeup department of a Hollywood studio, or on its computers, either. Not knowing what's behind the string of stunning eviscerations/decapitations--the creature haunting the institution (exteriors were shot at Chicago's Field Museum) is after the hypothalamus of its victims, which requires some cranial intrusions--is key. Once we see it, it loses much of its attraction. But, hey, there's a lot in life that works exactly the same way.
"The Relic" suffers from some of the stock inanities of the science-horror genre: Two scientists, for instance--in this case Green and her mentor Dr. Albert Frock (James Whitmore)--talking to each other but really talking to us, because they already know the stuff they're explaining to each other. And while "The Relic" isn't as guilty as some films on this point, do people whose lives are in peril tell this many jokes? And will someone please explain why characters in movies who are caught up in the police investigation of a murder--the murders of co-workers, at that--act as if they're being subjected to the world's biggest inconvenience? In Green's case, it makes her look like the most self-absorbed creature alive (except for the monster, perhaps) and that's obviously not Hyams' intention.
Easier to swallow are the objections from museum director Ann Cuthbert (Linda Hunt) that the investigation is going to delay the museum's gala opening of its show on myth and superstition--which will provide major funding, as well as the kind of crowd scenes necessary for a truly climactic blood bath. The gala also allows Miller the opportunity to spend the second half of the movie in a little black something that shows off her legs. The symbolic surrender of her high heels just prior to the ultimate confrontation is a bit much, but the point is made: Don't mess with a woman in need of grant money, no matter how skimpily she's dressed.
* MPAA rating: R. Times guidelines: Violence and gore are far too intense for younger audiences, and maybe older ones too.
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Dr. Margo Green: Penelope Ann Miller
Lt. Vincent D'Agosta: Tom Sizemore
Dr. Ann Cuthbert: Linda Hunt
Dr. Albert Frock: James Whitmore
Det. Hollingsworth: Clayton Rohner
Greg Lee: Chi Muoi Lo
A Cloud Nine Entertainment production, released by Paramount. Director Peter Hyams. Producers Gale Ann Hurd, Sam Mercer. Screenplay by Amy Holden Jones, John Raffo, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, from the novel by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Cinematographer Peter Hyams. Editor Steve Kempner. Music John Debney. Production design Philip Harrison. Creature effects Stan Winston. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.