In addition to its obvious relevance to some important and up-to-date scientific issues, Godsend owes as much to Mary Shelley's grand Gothic novel Frankenstein --- and a century of its proliferating cinematic progeny --- as to today's headlines.
While the new movie deals with a controversial contemporary subject, human cloning, it also depends upon a long and ghoulish history of reconstituting a human being, of creating life from the harvest of death. At the same time that it alludes to those scientists testing the limits of the possible in their laboratories, it also recalls the doomed Faustian dreams of the eponymous Victor Frankenstein.
That combination of an ancient history and a timely subject provides the chief source of narrative energy in a film that never really develops the potential it initially promises. Although it now and then pays lip service to the legal, ethical, and moral dilemmas posed by today's advances in biotechnology, Godsend generally dissipates its intellectual substance in some of the familiar nonsense of the horror flick and retreats from its emotional problems into mere melodrama.
The movie also, however, demonstrates once again the sensitivity of popular film to the currents of the culture, its tendency to reflect in some way the subjects that haunt the national psyche.
In the film, Paul and Jessie Duncan (Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), suffer the worst tragedy that can befall a parent, the death of a child, their eight-year-old son Adam (Cameron Bright), in an automobile accident. A former professor of Jessie's, Richard Wells (Robert De Niro), intrudes in the midst of their grief. He offers them the opportunity to resurrect their son in his laboratory.
If they act quickly, he promises, he can harvest Adam's stem cells and apparently insert them in Jessie's uterus. The couple can re-create their child and repeat his life. They will essentially have their son, the same little boy, all over again.
Naturally, although not without some misgivings, the Duncans accept the scientist's offer. Following his plan, they relocate to a splendid house in the country near the ambiguously named Godsend Fertility Clinic, run by Dr. Wells.
The implantation of the stems cells produces the desired effect. Jessie bears a male child, the exact duplicate of their lost son, a new Adam for their new world. Since the research violates the law, they must keep the whole endeavor secret. This narrows the emotional range and constricts the characters in their culpability, so that Dr. Wells becomes part of the family, Adam's beloved Uncle Richard.
As any wan veteran of the balconies knows, that artificially controlled and concentrated situation must obey the rigid rules of cinema and eventually disintegrate into fear and suffering. When he reaches his eighth birthday, Adam begins to suffer night terrors and fugue states, when he appears to take on another identity and apparently undergoes some of the experiences of his initial self, the first Adam.
As his behavior and personality change radically from sweet and loving to obnoxious and violent, his parents suspect that something has gone terribly wrong. Paul decides to track down the clues in Adam's nightmares and hallucinations, which lead to the inevitable and perhaps too predictable solution to the mystery of his identity.
Although that central mystery follows a relatively familiar pattern, it also provides a few unexpected twists, including some rather hurried explanations and some factitious additions.
The picture relies far too much on the familiar material of its genre: repeated shots of characters walking apprehensively down long dark corridors toward some fearful danger, tediously slow movement to extract every ounce of tension from some stereotypical situation, and an appalling telegraphing of many of its alleged surprises.
The writer and director apparently don't quite know how to end their story so simply tack on material that belabors the obvious and the literal.
Aside from some reiterated talk about its basic premise, Godsend rarely attempts to confront the moral confusion of creating a new life. Instead it concentrates on that late 20th-century horror flick phenomenon --- since The Bad Seed and Village of the Damned --- of the child as both victim and villain.
The one scene that actually visualizes the moral complexity of its themes occurs near the end in a climactic and violent confrontation between De Niro and Kinnear. Appropriately, they struggle in front of the altar in a Catholic church, thus neatly suggesting the contemporary conflict between the new science and the old religion.
Aside from the ambiguity of its title, the only other real irony in the movie may be entirely inadvertent --- De Niro, memorably and horribly, played the monster to Kenneth Branagh's unmemorable but equally horrible Victor in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Now he plays the Mad Scientist himself, perhaps a step forward in an otherwise generally distinguished and varied career.
Godsend (PG-13), starring Greg Kinnear, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Robert De Niro, Cameron Bright; written by Mark Bomback; directed by Nick Hamm. Cinemark Tinseltown, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Greece Ridge, Regal Henrietta.