By Mike White
After the one-two punch of JURASSIC PARK and "ER," it seemed that Michael Crichton could do no wrong. These apparent successes ushered in an era of rather sub-par claptrap such as RISING SUN, DISCLOSURE, CONGO, TWISTER, and SPHERE. In retrospect, JURASSIC PARK had some believable effects, if the characters weren't, while "ER" isn't so bad if you're unfamiliar with "St. Elsewhere" and "M*A*S*H".
The '90s were a bit of a Crichton renaissance after his heyday in the '70s. The '80s, however, weren't kind to the writer/director/doctor. Apart from LOOKER and RUNAWAY in the early part of the decade, Crichton's only film work in the late '80s was the critically eschewed PHYSICAL EVIDENCE. However, Crichton wasn't just sitting on his hands all those years. Crichton's screenplay for GENES is dated 3/28/89, only a few weeks after the U.S. release of PHYSICAL EVIDENCE. GENES marks a return to Crichton's now-trademark blend of science and science fiction.
Anticipating the spate of horror remakes that included Francis Ford Coppola's DRACULA (1992) and Kenneth Branagh's FRANKENSTEIN, Crichton's GENES was a retelling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. More accurately, Crichton's work culls from James Whale's 1931 film version more than Shelly's original novel. Unlike Branagh and Coppola, however, Crichton modernizes the classic horror tale. Ironically, GENES anticipates the 2000 overhaul of H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man in Paul Verhoeven's HOLLOW MAN. Like the Verhoeven film, most of GENES takes place in a laboratory where overzealous doctors perform questionable medical procedures on simian research subjects and unstable humans.
In GENES, successful doctor Victor Frankenstein and his crack team have uncovered a way to revive patients after death with a gene switching uterine protein that will reactivate genes and re-grow organs by activating "cellular repair mechanisms at the DNA level." Despite some questionable results from his baboon "volunteers" and his impending wedding to the compassionate Jennifer (she's so sensitive, she works with cancer kids), Victor decides to move full speed ahead and revive a human being.
Coroner Marty (Igor just isn't that common of a moniker anymore - but Frankenstein is just fine as a surname apparently) provides the perfect corpse with the criminally-inclined Helen Morris. Is she strong? Listen bud; she's got rapidly mutating blood. But, rather than being cordoned off into a cell like Sil from SPECIES, Helen's taken out to an embarassing dinner where she proves to be not very ladylike. Not to worry, though, Helen doesn't remain a female for long. It seems that Frankenstein's use of his own DNA in the revival process (along with an abnormally large dose) doomed Helen to a metamorphosis wherein she becomes like a bigger, uglier version of Victor. Upon reading this, I immediately cast Tom Waits as Victor Frankenstein and Ron Pearlman as the newly dubbed "Henry" (a nice nod to the character names of Whale's FRANKENSTEIN).
It doesn't take long for Henry to kill those who wish to do him harm, leading to a rather lackluster finale wherein Victor and his "creation" tussle. The rote ending feels even more disappointing in the wake of the multiple "loose ends" that Crichton failed to tie up. What happened to Jennifer's favorite cancer kid? Did Henry gain Victor's intelligence or sense memory when he received Victor's DNA? Was Henry more Victor or more Helen? The world will never know and we're better for it.