It’s clear that studios had hopes that these “horror movies as action films” would go bigger than they eventually ended up going. It wouldn’t make any sense to give Peter Hyams, the man who gave the world Timecop, a prestige project based on a best-selling novel like The Relic if you didn’t expect a big return. What they ended up with was an incoherent mess that, as pretty much every critic at the time reminded us, was trying to ape the vibe of Alien “but in a museum!” while making it clear that no one involved in the production actually understood why Alien worked.

We open with a not at all culturally sensitive scene of creepy anthropologist John Whitney observing native religious rituals in South America, and then later becoming so panicked over his artifacts being shipped back to Chicago that he stows away aboard a freighter. Some time later, the boat arrives in Chicago with the entire crew killed, and a mysterious series of murders involving decapitations begin to occur at the natural history museum, with intrepid biologist Penelope Ann Miller caught in the middle of gruff detective Tom Sizemore’s investigation. Political pressure stalls the investigation so that the Mayor can attend the museum’s lush new gala, which results in the local 1%ers being slaughtered by a giant lizard-bug creature that eats human brains. Penelope eventually figures out that the creature is a bizarrely mutated John Whitney and blows up him, saving the day.

It’s a mess, honestly. It’s hard to see what, exactly, the film-makers were aiming for, as they keep cutting between elements of actual suspense and mystery and scenes where problems are solved with guns and explosions. The characters are all stock, with no real depth, and there’s a creepily racist undertone that pops up from time to time, from Miller’s rival scientist, a cheating, scheming Asian nerd, to Miller’s constant comments about “primitive” people, to the wholescale othering of Native Americans and their mutative herbs that underlies the film’s plot. But where the film really fails is in it’s half-assedness as an adaptation. Relic, the novel, had a sequel out in time for the film, but the film not only kills off recurring characters, but also completely excises a central character that would have opened up the film to franchise potential. It speaks to the sort of laziness that typifies the film.

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