starring Greg Kinnear, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Robert De Niro, Cameron Bright
screenplay by Mark Bomback
directed by Nick Hamm
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Godsend's spine-tingling set-up doesn't just trump its conclusion, it literally beats the hell out of it. The suggestion is that the clone of a dead child begins to have supernatural dreams at the age his host was killed--a premise that fosters consuming dread and marks potentially the best mainstream horror film since The Ring. More, the film's changeling child's dreams remind of the "School of Dead Children" arc from Neil Gaiman's late lamented "Sandman" comic, a connection made resonant by the fact that screenwriter Mark Bomback's next project is the cautiously-awaited adaptation of Garth Ennis's "Hellblazer" title (Constantine). What else to feel than admiration at chilling passages where the shade of the dead child, clad complete in death-day attire of favourite jacket and new sneakers, questions its clone on its identity and on the location of its parents? All that goes out the window, though, in favour of an all-too-familiar Frankensteinian "Abby Normal" brain-transplant-gone-awry intrigue that seems to have been tailor-made for above-the-title player Robert De Niro to have a few inexplicable actor's moments. What results is a complete betrayal of absolutely everything eloquent about the film's pitch--not a twist so much as a cheat of the worst kind, one from an altogether different movie at that: the revelation that the Wizard of Oz is Godzilla.
All the trappings are there for a traditional horror gothic: the giant empty old rambling Victorian house; isolation in the middle of an insular society; a mad scientist; a remote cabin in the misty woods; autumn; too many shower curtains; a couple touched by tragedy; and an evil child who's evil--in the new tradition of millennial evil children films--just because he is. The couple is played well by the underestimated Greg Kinnear and the surprisingly effective Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, the mad scientist is a tranquilized Robert De Niro, and the bad seed/Bradburyan small assassin is turtle-faced Cameron Bright. When the couple's kid is splattered against the side of a shoe store by an unfortunate series of events, mad genius De Niro offers to clone said moppet after entering the attractive couple into his version of the witness protection program. He'll do it, but they can never tell anyone and can never go home again. It's a contrivance and an insupportable one, but for as long as the film cooks along in the grooves of its cunningly-tooled genre grooves, there remains such a thing as suspension of disbelief. Once the wheels come off, however, and it's revealed that Clone Adam isn't dreaming of his counterpart burning in Hell but is, in fact, remembering how to be a sociopath from the sicko genes of the good doctor's dead boy piggybacking on poor cherubic Adam's double-helix, well, Godsend becomes garbage in record time and with scary efficiency.
Until then, Godsend reminds a lot of the kind of body slash medical slash sexual/fertility horror of a David Cronenberg film--it's hyper-intellectualized but grounded by authentic pathos provided by the carefully-modulated low-thrum melodrama of Kinnear's and Romijn-Stamos's performances. The picture sees pregnancy as an agreement to corporeal distortion, unimaginable pain, and an intimate confrontation with the animal in us, unfolding the drama of reproduction in a series of expansive, sterile environments and establishing early on the idea of a cautionary tale about the dangers of screwing around with the natural. Director Nick Hamm demonstrates a nice use of silence in a few key scenes, a smart use of montage to reveal Kinnear framed against a crucifix, the evil kid reaching wistfully for a hatchet, and, in the picture's best moment (despite alterations to earn a PG-13), the superposition of a parental sex act with a child's first dream of consumption and death.
Godsend has so much going for it that it's trebly painful when intelligence and courage squeeze out of it like the protracted death rattle of one of the picture's perversely cheerful birthday balloons. The picture takes a right turn somewhere along the line in jettisoning the idea that the haunting spectre is Adam 1, trapped in hell (which is a Catholic school called St. Pius) and presenting the disturbing conclusion that everything about Dr. Crazy's experiment has gone exactly right, so that even the picture's cautionary warning against presupposing the location of the soul and meddling with nature finds itself in the gutter with the rest of what's good. There's nothing to this film by the end of it, no hard questions, no philosophical quandaries, no context for its performances except as possible audition pieces for the next film, and, with the loss of respect for its own internal logic, no more scares past the first hour--Hamm ultimately resorts twice to jarring musical stings and the most desperate kinds of basement filmmaking. Godsend is the kind of disappointment where you realize that not only does the film fail a fantastic concept, it's also made it just that much more difficult for someone with the ability to carry the concept through to a satisfactory end to ever realize it properly. Originally published: April 30, 2004.