There are some absolutely brilliant dialogue exchanges in The Relic, some of them so darkly twisted, they fit right into the film’s dim photography. After a pot smoking security guard is killed inside a Chicago Museum of Natural History bathroom, Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) arrives on the crime scene. The body is sprawled out on the floor, and D’Agosta asks where the head is. His partner responds, “Over by the sink.” Cue a quick camera pan to the severed head.
The scene that follows, a priceless autopsy, maintains the same level of twisted humor. Audra Lindley is superb as the coroner, so much so that it is a shame she only has this one scene.
Despite all of its genre contrivances, it is the small interactions that make director Peter Hyams’ adaptation of the equally enjoyable novel a joy to watch. You will find the plot familiar, with a small location (the locked down museum) playing host to a critical event (an opening to a new exhibit) which authorities (the mayor) state must go on due to financials involved despite warnings (from D’Agosta).
Jaws of course mastered this tried and true formula, but The Relic is its own movie. Hyams, who also worked as cinematographer, allows almost zero light into the frame. At times, you are literally looking at a black screen and maybe a small light trail. While slight overkill in the earlier scenes (even daylight appears dark), the style is wonderfully effective during sequences of sheer panic.
As a group of party goers try to escape from the underground sewer tunnels, only a flashlight provides visibility. The creature, in this case a mixture of various animals DNA, begins its assault to munch on the hypothalamuses of its victims. The crowd turns into frenzy, the light source flashes violently, water splashes everywhere, and screams blare.
The Relic takes some time to reach this point. This is likely why the mood is kept light, to keep the blatantly copied concept from becoming too unbearable until Stan Winston’s admirable creature can take over. This works however, stretching the film out like a rubber band until it finally lets go for a wildly fun finale. Despite the computer generated effects not holding up, seeing the beast run around while on fire, still desperate for a meal, is as fun as it was back in 1997.
Given the dim, even non-existent lighting that provides The Relic with its distinctive look, Lionsgate delivers an AVC encode that is capable of keeping the black levels fully intact. Black crush is not necessarily of a digital nature, but purely part of the source. Entire environments are swallowed by darkness, and officers wearing black uniforms and even Penelope Ann Miller’s dress blends with the background intentionally.
While that is perfectly understandable, the glaring digital processing and edge enhancement are not. Watch as Miller first becomes curious to enter the Superstition exhibit around 32:44 and you will see a clear halo surround her body. This is a constant problem, at least where there is enough light not to obscure it. The opening credits also carry bright edging around the names.
The grain, which seems at least partially intact, is entirely unobtrusive. Yet, the transfer exhibits the usual warning signs of DNR. Fast motion carries some noticeable smearing, and faces, especially at a distance, carry a waxy quality. In close, fine detail never looks fully resolved, showing a soft, smooth look. Flesh tones are generally pinkish.
Limited color dominates the look of the film. Even in daylight, such as when the ship is first brought to port, they are dim and muted. Like the lighting, this is no fault of the transfer, just a means of setting expectations. This is certainly not the same master used for 13-year old DVD (which was released by Paramount). This could be a master that was minted for early HD broadcasts, but that is merely a theory. Whatever the case may be, it looks significantly dated, and that has little to do with the source’s age (in fact, the print itself has few defects aside from the opening credits).
Lionsgate delivers an amazingly aggressive DTS-HD 7.1 mix for the Blu-ray edition, one that relies on musical cues and ambiance to get started. John Debney’s score carries a heavy, powerful low-end. The booming bass that pounds the sub as Miller has a panic attack inside the soon-to-open exhibit is spectacular. Highs carry a crisp fidelity that is entirely modern. Dialogue reproduction is excellent throughout, hampered only by some obvious ADR late in the film.
When the museum opens its doors to its party guests, their ambient chatter, along with a superb sounding orchestra playing lightly in the background, offers fine environmental effects. As things take a turn for the worse, sprinklers kick in, enveloping the viewer with splashing water in all channels. Those two extra surrounds are utilized extensively in these scenes. Power shuts down with a powerful thump that should rattle any room.
Creature assaults are aided by a well prioritized score, clear panicked screams, and a roar that can make you wonder if your sub can take this much of a beating. Each footstep is nearly absurdly overdone, making the creature seem as heavy as Godzilla stomping through the city. Thankfully, those massive thuds do not overwhelm the rest of the audio, with shattering glass remaining fully audible, clean, and free of imperfections. The finale, bringing with it a massive, room-filling explosion, keeps the same qualities, and accurately whips around the rear channels. Split fronts also carry the action well, with the same level of fantastically clean fidelity.
Peter Hyams delivers a solo commentary for the film, a first as the DVD failed to contain anything besides trailers. He is also interviewed in a brief 10-minute feature titled The Filmmakers Lens, where he details his methods and education. A trailer is also included.