9 Things I noticed watching The Relic 13 years after my first viewing

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Summary: The Relic is a 1997 creature feature piece combining elements of locked building horror with science thriller. It tosses out semi-jargon at the speed of light, and has a mostly awesome baddy to bounce a plot against. It also whips out such standards as strong-female-scientist, swarthy-jaded-cop, cocky-security-guy who ignores-the-warnings, and a bevy of professionals who get really confused when they are expected to do their job. I investigate nine elements that stood out to me on a rewatching...

BLOT: (09 Jan 2011 - 04:27:50 AM)

9 Things I noticed watching The Relic 13 years after my first viewing

It would have been about 1992 when I got my first copy of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Mass-market. Not the movie tie-in edition (the movie was a year or so off at the time) with the black background and Park logo from the movie, but the original, which aped the hardcover copy: white with a tyrannosaurus skeletal silhouette. It sold well, so by the time I got it, it could have been a whatever double digit printing and was probably splashed with blurbs and declarations of being #1 this and that. Read it. Fast. Fell in love with it. Shared with my mom and friends. Got super-excited about the movie coming out. And while I am less in love with it now than I was then, it is still one of the key fictional books of my childhood. It led to me devouring a lot of books and movies with similar settings and characters, and was responsible for me to self-identify as a scientist type (an identification later tempered and altered, but at one point in time a key element of my personality).

A few years later, we get to Preston & Child's [The] Relic, a book in a very similar genre—you might call it expert-centric thrillers or science horror—also involving the seemingly impossible thrust up against a team of intelligent sorts battling it out not only with monsters but also with bureaucrats, big money, and a series of most unfortunate events. This time it is a museum, not an island, and its a single monster instead of a massive amount of dinosaurs, but there you go. I did not read the book first, this time, I saw the 1997 movie starring Tom Sizemore and Penelope Ann Miller and then later read the book with very little memory of the movie (and a lot of that combined with Mimic, rather hopelessly). Liked the book enough to read more in the series, and forgot about the movie even more until a few weeks ago...I got an urge to watch it. Stuck with me. Finally went out and bought it tonight and watched with my wife.

While watching it, there were little bits here or there that stuck to me and I thought it might be fun to keep track of them and share them. Here are my nine things I noticed while rewatching The Relic about thirteen years after seeing it as a VHS rented from the local Movie Gallery and watched on mostly questionable VCR. And I promise not to spend the whole list pedantically comparing the book to movie, I have to start with...

#9 Where in the Hell is Agent Pendergast? Pendergast, the strange, suave, and secretive FBI Agent from the novel that went on to form the core of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's novels: he is just written out of the movie. The movie did fine without him but that's almost like writing out Sherlock Holmes from a Study in Scarlet adaptation, and then entirely focusing on John Watson.

#8 The movie feels like it is missing scenes. A couple of kids sneak around in the museum after hours. A body gets found. They might have had something to do with it, but that element is cut and jumps to the kids needing psychological questioning later. One woman cleans the eponymous relic, and then about the time it gets done she just fades from camera, making you think that maybe she got eaten. This and a couple of other places scream deleted scene, unless they were going for a disjointed feel. Neither the DVD nor Blu-Ray has anything like deleted scenes, though.

#7 They sure say hypothalamus a lot. If you were to play a drinking game involving taking a shot whenever the words thalamus, thalamic region, or hypothalamus were spoken you would be fine up until about the half way mark and then you would pass out from alcohol poisoning. They say the word "hypothalamus" so often in a couple of spots that the only explanation is that the screenwriters took a dare. And sure, it's not an easy word to synonymize, but damn.

#6 Was that meant to feel like a anti-marijuana message? A security guard goes into the bathroom to smoke pot, and then the critter gets him and drags him under the stile. The camera lingers on the half-smoked joint as you hear screams or whatever in the background. A few scenes later, the cops are checking out the crime and one of them jokes about "pot on the potty" and D'Agosta replies that it's only a misdemeanor and this seems to be a harsh punishment, partially in response to the fact that the ex-pot-smoker's brain is laying on the floor. Everyone laughs. Thanks, D.A.R.E.

#5 The science seems pretty ok, but... I have not fact checked everything about this movie, but overall the science jargon spouted seems somewhat reasonable [central teratogenic plots notwithstanding]. A few scenes work better than others. And a sodium into water trigger to ignite a preserving agent spill? That's the kind of crazy Rube Goldberg machine than chemists dream about on their lunch break. How come the police procedural half of the equation felt like nonsense?

#4 Why was the sense of place so screwed up in this movie? It might just be me, but we are talking about a large building with lots of locked doors, with lots of weird hallways, off-shoots, and self-contained storage shed, and an entire sub-basement network of sewage ways and coal tunnels; and never does the location gel. The entire spatial sense of the place is screwed up. The creature will be in some upper ballroom place, and then later in a whole other set of tunnels. I'm sure if I tried mapping it out, I would end up with at least two or three impossible scenes, but that's ok. Just FYI.

#3 For a movie that takes the half way point to get someplace, people sure figure things out pretty quick. Somewhere slightly past [I think] the halfway point, Dr. Margo Green mostly solves the whole thing. All except one piece of the puzzle which falls into place about the three-quarter mark and is barely referenced again and so sits flat and uncomfortably unmentioned like bad pancakes. Margo Green is the master of unlocking [scientific thriller plots], I guess.

#2 How did CG survive as a technique? A Stan Winston Company series of special effect splash across our screen for the majority of the movie: decapitated heads, brains, floating corpses, big-and-bad critters. Not every fallen head looks super, and not every shot of the monster works, but mostly it does and is often quite well done. Then, bam, climax starts amping up and we swap over to CG. Except, as CG fire burns around a CG thing lumbering through a non-CG lab, we get the strangest and most nonsensical choice of lighting and shading available, coming across as a badly rendered aluminum foil ball charging through an inferno and reflecting flames at the behest of a mad god floating blind in the center of the universe. Who looked at this and went "Yeah, CG is totally the future!"? Oh, that's right, people who watched Jurassic Park.

#1 No fake-out just to bring in those with a strong female scientist in distress fetish. Think back to all those movies and books you've read or seen with a strong female scientist as a main character. Now, are they secretly vain and flustered, despite being hopeful and idealistic? How many are emotional scarred—often involving their father['s death]—but [hyper-]ethically grounded compared to your typical money-grubbing, evil-scheming male scientist? Maybe even a little bit tomboyish and down to earth in their ability to do things practically and just not give a damn? How many ultimately have to be rescued or otherwise fixed by the swarthy leading male who tends to embody a traditionally patriarchal role even while he is slightly odd and not quite like other men? While Tom Sizemore's Vincent D'Agosta is kind of prototypical in that regard, he neither fixes her emotionally nor really rescues her even though he thinks he is supposed to in a couple of scenes. I found that to be a nice change of pace.

Well, that's it for what's it worth. Really did enjoy the movie despite all my weird statements and such above (I'd give it a Good, even, and will watch again). I'm mostly just glad that Dr. Green didn't feel like a fetish piece tossed in for nerd guys. That, and hypothalamus.

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