I'm sure there's a pretty good monster movie in here somewhere. Unfortunately, I had trouble seeing any of it. Peter Hyam's has made a career out of putting solid b-movie fare on the big screen (2010, Capricorn One, Outland, Timecop, End of Days) while mixing in an occasional complete piece of shit here and there (Sound of Thunder). With this one, I think he wore too many hats (director and cinematographer). Apparently, he's not the best multi-tasker in the business. For several scenes, he forgot to take the lens cap off.
It's a shame because what I heard sounded like a lot of fun. Based on the novel of the same name by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, this is the story of an anthropologist who, while studying a tribe in South America, comes into contact with some bad leaves. "Do not ingest!" the sign said, but since it was covered in mud he didn't notice. The researcher's crates are sent back to Chicago via a large ship that was found derelict in the middle of Lake Michigan with a dead crew on board. One of the crates is empty (hmmm, come to think of it, we might be heading for a Dracula rip off). Well, except for those damned leaves. A little later, a security guard is murdered at the Museum of Natural History (in similar fashion to the crew on the boat) while smoking a joint in the mens room. I think D.A.R.E. maybe helped to finance this picture.
The murder is bad news for the museum since a large gala is scheduled to take place the next night with the mayor and several wealthy benefactors in attendence. Of course, the mayor insists the party must go on, to the chagrin of Detective Vincent "don't call me D'Agostino" D'Agosta (Tom Sizemore). Fortunately, a couple of keystone cops find and shoot a homeless guy in one of the museum's several unlit sub-basements. Clearly, he's the murderer. Case closed. That still doesn't explain how or why he sucked out the hypothalamus from his victim's skulls. Oh well. Anything to get a few hundred rich people trapped in a museum, that goes into lock-down mode the instant something breaks, with a very large beastie that harbors an insatiable appetite.
This picture has most of the elements that should lead to success. A cute, fiery evolutionary biologist, Margo Green, played by Penelope Ann Miller (Where has she been lately? Guess she got old.). There's the grizzled police officer, going through a messy divorce, with the funny lines (Sizemore) who upon finding the dead security guard says "pot's a misdemeanor. Decaptitation seems a bit severe" and also "how the fuck does somebody get custody of a dog?" There's a fantastic setting, the museum, that's second only to space, or perhaps, an underwater lab. Also, there's a pretty cool monster in the rare instance that we actually get to see it. That's the problem with this thing. Every scene is washed in darkness. Even the moments that take place in a lit room are somehow immersed in shadow. The museum has sub-basement upon sub-basement, all pitch black of course, that lead to a tunnel that leads to, coincidentally, the harbor where the derelict ship was towed in to. I mean, this isn't something like Blair Witch or Cloverfield where it's acceptable to drop the camera and treat the audience to a few minutes of ground scenery while the action happens out of view. This is a professional movie for chrissakes. We want to see things like faces, monsters, boobs, etc. Hell, the scene where Penelope takes off her top is so poorly lit that I began to think the whole thing was some sort of joke and I wasn't in on it.
The nature of the creature, and we do learn everything, is completely ridiculous, but that's ok. As long as there are some tense moments accompanied by some bloody kills. One scene, in the sub-basement, completely apes Alien, as a K-9 officer goes off by himself in search of his dog (remember the scene with Harry Dean Stanton going off alone after Ripley's cat?). Unfortunately, I couldn't tell what the fuck was happening so I just flashed back to Alien and imagined it went down the same way. Alien may have been bathed in darkness too, but they used things like emergency lights, beacons, etc to convey the action to the audience. Sure, we didn't see everything. We saw enough. Aliens went infra-red at times to deal with this problem. Not fucking Hyams. I can only think he's a pretty piss poor DP which is why he didn't want us to see what he was shooting.
Still, the movie has it's moments. The creature sounds like it's constantly sucking on an inhaler so I loved the moment when Penelope hides from the sound in the bathroom only to realize it's just the asthmatic cleaning woman. The mass panic that happens at the gala as hundreds of rich bastards flee for the closing doors is a classic bit. Not even sure why they were really running. They didn't even see the monster, just a body. The mayor was portrayed as your classic windbag, when he wasn't bragging about his wife's cleavage. He gives a funny speech where he talks about taking fragile footsteps towards the 21st century or something. One guy in the audience wonders if he's speaking english. I think he just needs a better speechwriter.
I guess Hyams did a great job at concealing what must have been some pretty piss-poor CGI. There are a few ways to hide some bad effects work. One is to shoot in darkness (check!). Another effective method is to add some rain (double check!). As soon as some museum glass breaks, the fire doors come crashing down followed by the sprinklers. Kudos Mr. Hyams. There are a couple nice effects, however. One involves the creature, completely engulfed in flames, chasing after Penelope Ann Miller. The film's top moment comes when a SWAT team drops through the roof one by one and are consumed one by one. The creature itself (created by Stan Winston!) resembles a giant cat crossed with a lizard and has the mouth of a predator. I don't know, I still enjoyed it. Maybe I just had the tint turned way down (or is it up) on my TV. Someday, I'll watch again and try adjusting it. It's strange, but the only thing I'll probably remember about this picture a year from now is the alert setting on Miller's computer (for when a download or analysis is completed). It's the sound of screeching tires, then shattering glass. It was jarring every time I heard it. It goes off at least three times. What the fuck was that about?