Underrated movie: The Relic

A dozen years ago when I was a lowly college slacker, I only owned a handful of VHS tapes.  One of those was The Relic.

This thriller from 1997 takes place at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.  One of their research anthropologists goes missing in the Brazilian rainforest, survived only by a mysterious crate he had shipped back to the museum containing nothing but a strange idol no one has ever seen before.  They decide to showcase at an upcoming gala event, where the struggling researchers desperately need to secure donations and grants from Chicago’s elite so they can keep their jobs.  Soon after the crate arrives, though, strange murders start happening.  One of the museum scientists and a CPD lieutenant…


…team up to solve the mystery, and they discover that the killer isn’t human.  Something is lurking in the basements and sewer system below the museum.

The museum brass knows it’s there, too.  In classic thriller movie logic, with hubris only matched by the mayor of Amity Island, they decide to go through with the gala anyway.  They take every precaution, including a state of the art (y’know, for 1997) lockdown system that proceeds to trap everyone inside with the monster.  It’ll look really bad if the Mayor gets eaten, so with no other egress, they have to make an escape attempt through the sewers … which is exactly where the monster has made its nest.

The Good:

The main character. Dr. Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller) is a smart, ambitious evolutionary biologist who treats rules as more of a suggestion and whose curiosity very likely could kill her.


(They told you not to go in there, Penelope.)

She and her crew are museum staff. This is one of my dream jobs.

It passes the Bechdel Test. Margo and her boss Dr. Cuthbert (Linda freaking Hunt) are preoccupied with museum research and winning the game of internal funding politics. Oh, and kicking monster ass.

The acting. Lieutenant D’Agosta, the museum director, Margo’s wheelchair-bound mentor, the city M.E., even the kids playing hooky. Pretty much everybody knows how to ham it up, just a little, if they have a speaking role. It’s great.

The Bad:

The absence of the actual main character.  The movie’s based on the novel Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. In the book, Green & D’Agosta are secondary characters to Special Agent Pendergast. He’s a neat guy: FBI agent, former Special Forces, sophisticated, versed in weird knowledge, and eccentric to the point of being alien. He’s a NOLA boy, and comes from a bizarre old southern dynasty plagued by a genetic predisposition to be murderous psychopaths.  Pendergast is like if Hannibal Lecter had a penchant for doing good and had never eaten anyone.  Yet he’s entirely left out of the movie.

Absent Pendergast, the story’s climactic scene was entirely redone.  It ain’t the best.

The special effects are pretty crappy, even by 1997 standards.  You don’t see the monster fully until the end, but the shadows are a little confusing and the monster, which looks like the Predator’s giant bulldog, never comes across as realistic.

And they even send helicopters after it. Seriously.


“Get to ze choppah!”

The Takeaway:

The book and subsequent movie included what it wanted into a story.  Scientist heroes! Genetic mutations! A massive museum hunt! Sewer fights!  Science and adventure and monsters go together like PB & J & bread.  No holding back on the entertainment. (Except the special effects budget.)


About hildebabble
I write. I draw. I get way too invested in superheroes.

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