Godsend (2004)

[29 April 2004]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Nonsense

At the beginning of Nick Hamm’s misshapen, derivative unthriller, Paul (Greg Kinnear) is headed home with a birthday present for his eight-year-old son, Adam (Cameron Bright). At the beginning of Godsend, it’s twilight, snow’s falling, and the beribboned package is the brightest, reddest element on screen as Paul dodges pedestrians and cars, as the camera cuts between him heading down a dark alley (ominous) and the party back at his apartment (cheerful).

As soon as this tension is established, it’s busted up by the expected payoff: Paul is stopped short and pushed up against a wall by a couple of street punks. The one with the knife to his face turns out to be a former student, Maurice (Merwin Mondesir). Startled, the kid lets him go: “He’s cool man, he’s the best teacher I ever had,” he tells his mugging-buddy. The tone shifts sharply when Paul makes it back to wifey, Jessie (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who wonders where he’s been. “I ran into an old student,” he nearly chirps. “I got held up.”

Before you start thinking Kinnear’s going to pull some Schwarzeneggerian performance out of his hat, you should know that the almost-mugging has a vague thematic function, namely, to illustrate the folly of Paul’s desire to stay in the city and help “these kids.” Jessie’s desire is more pragmatic; though she loves her husband’s “ethics,” she prefers to raise Adam in suburban safety. No sooner does she say this than the real reason they should have moved already comes crashing into them. More precisely, it comes crashing into cute little Adam, in the form of a car, skidding to avoid hitting another kid on a bike. Mom sees the whole thing. And yes, she’s devastated.

For Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, this translates to “bruised-face” makeup and a bit of staggering around the church where they’ve arranged for the funeral. Paul supports her as they head down the snowy steps, at the bottom of which awaits… Robert De Niro. And if he’s not so Satanic as in Angel Heart, the utter creepiness of Dr. Richard Wells is no small thing. In fact—and this would be a theme in a movie that had any—he’s another teacher, some professor of Jessie’s who’s come round with a mind-boggler of a solution to their grief. He can clone Adam, but the DNA is only good for another 76 hours. Can you even imagine the suspense?

At this point, it appears that Paul’s lack of effect on Maurice wasn’t some minor fluke. He’s a biology teacher, which means he should know better than to throw in with this cockamamie scheme. The film finds a way around this little logic issue, though, by granting Paul an out-of-the-blue phone call from a friend who knows something about Richard’s history—as a genius. In other words, this “friend” knows nothing, and though he seems like a shill for Richard, he’s only one of the film’s pile on of increasingly preposterous contrivances. Then again, it hardly matters how Paul and Jessie come to agree to this illegal, immoral, blatantly loopy idea: they do, and to underline their insanity, they agree to move to the secret town where Richard keeps his clinic, named “Godsend,” where they further agree essentially to give up their freedom in order to re-have their son. No moving away, no contact with family or past friends: it’s a relocation program for stupids.

Predictably, Adam 2’s early childhood is fine (or so you hear, as none of it appears on screen), and then, when he turns eight, he starts in with the nightmares and the misbehaving, turning so strange and frightening that his own parents believe he’s killed a local bully, and start plotting how to deal with such disaster. (It’s never clear who all these other families are, how they live near Godsend Institute without a seeming clue as to what goes on there; similarly, it’s never clear who works at the institute, why they’re jogging on an indoor track with Wells, if they feel loyalty to Wells, or if they even know what they’re doing.)

Jessie is slow to react to all this weirdness, feeling understandably protective of her child and unfathomable trust in Richard (he coos, “Paul’s never felt as comfortable here as, has he?”). Paul, also understandably, is less smitten, more jealous of her faith in Richard, inclined to late night sessions on the internet, researching furiously. (Adam faints. Paul: “Call 911!” Jessie: “I’m calling Richard!”) And Dr. Wells? He calls the bad dreams “night terrors” (typical for some kids, heh heh) and sits in his cavernous, dark, lonely office, books stacked on the floor and papers all over his desk, rolling those Chinese health balls in his palm, over and over, scraping, metallic, and entirely annoying (one intercutting sequence has Adam’s aggression climax just as Richard’s balls slam loudly to the floor, a metaphor that’s so perverse it doesn’t much need explanation).

Long on atmosphere (snowy streets, echoey hallways, abandoned buildings that suddenly conjure up windstorm effects as soon as you walk inside them), the film is excessively short on emotional concepts. Run up against a wall of its own making, the film starts lifting from multiple well-known sources, including The Omen, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Pet Semetary, and The Shining. By the time the seemingly possessed Adam mouths off to his mother by more or less quoting from Kubrick’s movie (a spin on “Danny isn’t here, Mrs. Torrance!”), the gig is up. And still, Godsend persists, sending Paul off to discover the deep dark truth of Adam’s nightmares, born of memories that are not, technically, his.

These memories do belong to someone, and while the script, by Mark Bomback, pretends there’s science involved in the transfer, it’s mumbo jumbo of the most ridiculous sort. Paul puts the pieces together, Jessie puts herself in danger, the kid puts hammers through a couple of skulls. It’s no surprise that the tale is conveyed to Paul by an earnest, damaged black nanny named Cora (Janet Bailey). Shades of Scatman Crothers. When the white folks can’t figure it out, a wise black domestic can be counted on to provide the mind-boggling explanation.

Lions Gate’s promotion of this movie with a website that “seems” real, with testimonials from satisfied cloning clients and a biography for the nonexistent Wells, is probably less clever than desperate. Reportedly, the film was due for release last year, then underwent reshoots (Hamm says they made five endings, suggesting they’ll all appear on the DVD), which suggests a certain lack of focus or understanding on the set. A thriller collapses when it lacks sense at the scene-to-scene level. Scratch that: this one is incoherent at the line-to-line level, as if bits of dialogue have been dropped in at random.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/godsend/