In Godsend, the filmmakers have taken the genetic implications of The Bad Seed, the evil doppleganger premise of Tom Tryon’s The Other, and a touch of The Omen‘s blasphemy and potential for endless sequels, and updated it with the science of cloning. With such a pedigree this film might have been fun, but alas, when puny humans attempt to monkey with creation the results can be unpredictable. Like the children in those past Evil Kid movies–Damien, Holland, and little Rhoda Penmark–Godsend is good-looking but irretrievably flawed, marred by cliches, ham-handed symbolism, and clumsy exposition.
Godsend begins with shots of cells joining and subdividing against a dark void, along with much whooshing, gurgling, and echoes, much like what you would hear underwater in a crowded swimming pool. Once the opening credits are out of the way, the actual story begins with a birthday cake and the chaos of a child’s party. Adam Duncan, the adorable and treasured only child of Paul and Jessie Duncan, is blowing out the candles on his eight (and DNA) shaped cake.
As anyone who has seen the trailers knows, Adam is due very soon for a close encounter with an oncoming car, but first the family life of the Duncans must be depicted so that it can be wrecked in the next few minutes. Paul Duncan, played by Greg Kinnear, is a committed teacher in an inner-city school, a man of conscience who feels uneasy about the possibility of leaving his students and accepting a job in a more affluent neighborhood. Jessie (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), his photographer wife, wants to move for the sake of Adam. After all, when it comes to one’s children, "Sometimes ethics have to take a back seat," she says, delivering an instantly recognizable promissory note that will shortly be paid up with interest. Adam (Cameron Bright) is established as an appealing kid who likes his toy stegosaurus and his red jacket and has a romping, easy relationship with his parents.
Beep-beep goes the car, screech go the brakes. One day after his birthday Adam is dead, his parents bereft. While still reeling from the shock, they are approached by famed geneticist Dr. Richard Wells, played by Robert DeNiro with the requisite satanic black beard but a muscular charisma that’s rarely seen in movie mad scientists. He can recreate Adam, implant his clone in Jessie through in vitro fertilization. It’s a procedure that’s strictly illegal and would require the Duncans to start an entirely new life under the benevolent auspices of Dr. Wells, but it would restore their son to them. There would be no movie if the Duncans accepted his card, nervously edged away and called the police, so naturally they agree. The move to the suburbs is indeed made "for Adams’ sake."
Jump ahead eight years, to "Adam’s" second eighth birthday party. In marked contrast to their former life in the city, the Duncans are now living in a world of rolling lawns, water-views, and long gravel driveways. Adam seems much the same except that he has shorter hair and a touch of Damien’s unnerving self-possession. He seems to respect "Uncle Richard" Wells more than he respects his father, Paul. And, once his eighth birthday is past, he starts screaming at night and dreaming about a little boy who looks like him except that he has a red jacket and longer hair. And his personality is changing, he’s becoming pathologically defiant and destructive, and the other kids are beginning to be afraid of him.
So far, so mediocre. Like Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed, Cameron Bright’s face can go from melting cuteness to genuine menace in an instant, and the possibilities for interesting plot twists seem endless. Would this anti-social behavior have surfaced in the original Adam if he’d lived long enough? Is it a disorder triggered by the cloning, like the morbid obesity that has occurred in cloned mice, but much more photogenic? The result of being raised among white-bread suburban elitists instead of in the rough-edged, multi-cultural city? Or is Adam II being haunted, possibly even possessed, by an Adam I who is angry at being replaced?
The explanation that’s eventually uncovered is not nearly as interesting as these, though it might have been if it had been handled more deftly. Suffice it to say that Adam turns out to be a very bad seedling indeed and "Uncle Richard" has a lot to do with it. In the meantime, there are bludgeoning dreams and schoolhouse fire flashbacks, the not especially mysterious death of a schoolmate, a horribly written chunk of exposition recited by a spooky ex-nanny, and a fight in a church that concludes with a Bible catching fire, and the house of God burning down.
There are some spooky moments relatively early on, most of them centered around Adam II’s conviction that a ghostly little boy is stalking him, but by the climax the last vestiges of mystery and believability have been so effectively destroyed that there’s no real tension. The film does take a small step towards redeeming itself in the last scene, which recaptures come of that creepiness and seems to be preparing the ground for a sequel.
Perhaps if someone takes another shot at the intriguing ideas driving this film, a good horror movie could be made. As it stands, however, Godsend is just another missed opportunity.