This is a relic in lots of ways. This film appeared in the middle of the moody-brooding nineties, sandwiched somewhere between LAWNMOWER MAN and the HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL remake, but it has the science-haunted heart of a fifties giant-creature flick. Look all around you and you'll find science. It's there in the brain chemical and protein genealogy of the giant monster. It's there in Penelope Ann Miller's enjoyable performance as scientist heroine Dr. Green. It's there in the time we devote to scientists bickering over grant money, as Dr. Ayn Rand pulls out her luxurious hair in heaven.
A Chicago museum is about to unveil its exhibit on superstition, much to the dismay of superstition-hating Dr. Green. Unfortunately, a murdered body is unveiled first and the police arrive with tough cookie Lt. D'Agosta in the lead (Tom Sizemore, also really good here). The case is apparently solved at the halfway point of the film, but the red herring leads to red blood being slopped all around the mammoth exhibits and ceramic cavemen.
As stated, the film recalls science-inflected B-movie fun of the fifties. There's precious little evidence of the cynical grungy nineties happening outside those museum doors. People talk about lattes like they've just been invented and the Internet gets namedropped as a novelty. Otherwise, this could be set in 1955.
Some might point to the poorly-lit decor as an edgy nineties thing (or a weakness), but it's clearly just a stylistic choice. Stuff gets lit when it needs to be and keeping the film dark does help to make monster concealment feel more natural. Even though, yeah, sometimes it is pretty strange to see people having a normal conversation in a museum that looks like a recessed cave.
Peter Hyams directed and shot this and it sure seems like he knew what he was doing when we get a really pretty piece of lighting contrasted with the surrounding unlit scenes.
He knew what he was doing with the monster, too. THE RELIC wisely keeps it hidden. We get flashes of its limbs and tail to suggest massive size, and we also get aristocrat facial reactions that suggest impressive monster design.
What we finally see of it is pretty choice. I love how the monster moves, with this bouncing gallop like a tiger or Tigger. The science behind its origins will also entertain, if you love B-movie explanations as much as I do. Despite the science, THE RELIC is mostly a well-done brain-free fun film. It doesn't have a lot to say about human nature or the nature of truth or what is beauty, but if you want to see heads torn off and panicked people in tuxedos falling down stairs, this is for you.