25 years ago, this Alien knockoff spawned a monstrous sci-fi trend

This forgotten '90s sci-fi thriller has aged surprisingly well.

The creature feature was booming back in 1997. You had Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson battling a giant Amazonian snake in Anaconda, Guillermo del Toro unleashing deadly bugs on the New York subway in his Hollywood debut Mimic, and Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ripley taking on a human-Xenomorph hybrid in Alien: Resurrection. However, the first of these creature features was a film that now — 25 years later — looks like an amalgamation of all three.

Indeed, The Relic (not to be confused with 2020’s haunting psychological horror Relic) begins in the same jungle that nearly defeated J.Lo. On this occasion, it’s a delicious bowl of poisonous fungi soup, instead of a typical water snake, that sparks all the chaos, as anthropologist John Whitney (Lewis Van Bergen) finds out. Just like del Toro’s claustrophobic Mimic, the monster that mutates from said delicacy, known as the Kothoga, later stalks its prey in a maze of underground tunnels.

And Ellen Ripley’s hallmarks are all over the climactic showdown featuring evolutionary biologist Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller). The scene where the beast slobbers just millimeters away from her face is practically a carbon copy of that terrifying moment in David Fincher’s 1990 sequel. It leaves little wonder why Leonard Maltin pithily described the movie as “Alien in a museum.”

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Despite all this and a surprise number one stint at the U.S. box office, The Relic has left the least indelible impression as it celebrates its 25th anniversary on January 10. That may well be due to the lack of star power, or perhaps because it’s the pure definition of a mildly diverting Saturday night rental destined to be forgotten the minute after it’s finished. Still, there’s no denying the movie’s incredible pre-CGI effects kickstarted a series of exciting creature features in the late ‘90s.

Adapted from Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston’s 1995 novel, The Relic takes place inside Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History amid the gala opening of a new exhibition dubbed “Superstition.” It’s an event deemed so necessary even the gruesome discovery of a headless security guard – suspiciously murdered in the same manner as the merchant ship crew that brought back John Whitney’s cargo – fails to stop the party.

Of course, the bodies begin to pile up, and the culprit is revealed to be a Godzilla-meets-Predator hybrid creature whose survival depends on sucking out human pituitary glands. Museum curator Ann Cuthbert (Linda Hunt) is soon left wishing she’d postponed the gala.

Coming off two Jean-Claude Van Damme hits (including Timecop), Peter Hyams was a solid, if unspectacular, choice to take the director’s chair. He certainly knows how to frame a tense set-piece; see the darkly comic tightrope scene in which the Kothoga takes full advantage of the SWAT team’s ineptitude. Hyams also makes good use of the novel setting, exploring everything from the exhibits and science labs to the cramped storage spaces shown in the fire-blazing denouement.

Tom Sizemore and Penelope Ann Miller as the bargain-basement Mulder and Scully.

Paramount Pictures

The Relic’s monster, designed by the legendary effects artist Stan Winston and his team, is an impressive display of pre-CGI craftsmanship. New York City’s American Museum of Natural History reportedly turned down a million-dollar location shoot offer over fears the film would scare off younger attendees. And the Kothaga’s giant fangs, protruding tongue, and slimy reptilian frame, all of which are cleverly held back from full view until the last half-hour, may well have scarred many previously aspiring naturalists for life.

Sadly, the other technical elements aren’t quite as impressive. Much of its overlong 110 minutes is shot so darkly you suspect producers simply forgot to hire a lighting director. In addition, John Dabney’s bombastic orchestral score is almost as obtrusive as the ceiling-smashing mutant.

The gala attendees wished they’d stayed at home.

Paramount Pictures

As is the norm for the big-budget B-movie, it draws its human characters thinly. Tom Sizemore, who caught the flu twice during the filming of the waterlogged scenes, may well have suffered for his art. But apart from the odd deadpan zinger (“He makes Jeffrey Dahmer look like a cub scout”), his superstitious detective Vincent D’Agosta – a substitute for the book’s protagonist Pendergast – is a crushing bore. And even without sporting any facial hair, Chi Muoi Lo still goes full-on mustache twirler as the snide, grant-stealing scientist Greg Lee.

There is, however, a scene-stealing turn from Audra Lindley as the coroner prone to cracking dirty jokes while tending to decapitated bodies. At the same time, Margo’s natural intelligence makes her transition from damsel-in-distress to a resourceful final girl much easier to believe than most.

This semi-feminist bent means The Relic has aged surprisingly better than many other mid-90s monster mashes. And while we can’t imagine its 25th anniversary being a cause for much celebration, it remains a relatively fun no-brainer (or perhaps more aptly no-pituitary-gland) movie experience.

The Relic is now streaming on Amazon Prime with a Cinemax subscription.

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