“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” has always been relevant in life, and none moreso than in science. Ever before Dolly was first cloned way back in 1996, films and books have taken the whole idea of genetic engineering and cloning of people and come up with some frightening results. With Billy Senese’s Closer to God, which admittedly upon hearing the title, I immediately thought of Nine Inch Nails (+1 to you, Johnny B!), is the latest tale of human cloning gone wrong, and the subsequent fallout of man playing God. Does it make you want to f*ck like an animal?
Through independent backers, genetic researcher Dr. Victor Reed (Jeremy Childs) has succeeded in cloning a healthy baby girl named Elizabeth from his own DNA. Predictably, the resulting backlash has protesters from various sides hounding him day and night, comparing Reed to Frankenstein amongst other things. Reed is not even safe from his own family’s criticism, who have begun to feel the effects of the protests and Reed’s own obsessive work ethic. This all falls to the wayside when a dark secret Reed keeps hidden away from everyone, including his own family, threatens to reveal itself.
Rather than take the typical over-the-top route that many films go when it comes to a topic such as this, Closer to God is a slow burner. The first half of the film is used to set up the piece via flashbacks interspersed with increasing friction around Reed, who reveals his creation and is subsequently bombarded from all sides. The film thrives on the slow but steady trickle of dread that builds itself up into the violent and bloody climax. Credit to Senese for keeping certain aspects of the story away from the audience until the very end, when the tension is almost unbearable. The component to making this all work is some great acting by all principal actors. Childs is superb as a man who struggles with controlling the inevitable chaos he unleashes, but also shows that the character is also blinded by his own work. Shannon Hoppe provides an excellent emotional anchor on the side of Reed’s family as his wife, Claire. Reed’s assistants, Richard and Mary, played by David Alford and Shelean Newman respectively, provide another emotional side to the film, which adds another shade of grey to the dichotomy of the film.
Drawing another Frankenstein comparison, the film puts Reed and his creation in a sympathetic position. And while it’s debatable if Victor Frankenstein deserves sympathy from the audience for his actions, Senese makes the decision much easier in Closer to God for us to eventually lose that sympathy for the creator. Reed, in spite of his dogged determination to find cures for terrible disorders, turns out is not a sympathetic character. He does no favours for himself at the news conference revealing the results of his experiments, lacking all modesty in his achievements. His cold and outright neglect of his wife and his two daughters in favour of Elizabeth is, as we find out later, just the tip of the iceberg. As for Elizabeth, it’s a case of a creation being brought into a world that doesn’t understand them and is subsequently rejected. This leads into a “sins of the father” moment where Reed’s hypocrisy comes back when the topic arises as to what Reed did before he got to Elizabeth.
While Senese has taken care and provided a great genre thriller, there are some drawbacks. The film inevitably plays into the cliche of the creation rebelling against it’s creator trope that we all expect to happen, and as such the last 20 minutes of the film venture into monster territory. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a much-needed release after all of the preceding material winds the tension to the breaking point. It’s just predictable, and much like the rest of the film, doesn’t really stray from the formula that so many other films that have come before it have done.
And while not straying too far from the concept, Closer to God is still very satisfying. The film presents a surprisingly grounded scenario, and expertly turns the handle on the box, increasing the tension through marvellous acting by all participants, until the Jack-in-the-box bursts through, unleashing the payoff that we needed as an audience. Another great thing is that like all good movies, it will ask questions and prompt discussion. If you’re in the mood for a fresh revisiting of a Frankenstein story that remains in reality, check this out.