Solid performances, handsome production values and a few genuinely creepy scenes are not enough to save “Godsend.” After a modestly promising set-up, pic devolves into a stale rehash of cliches and conventions left over from dozens of demon-child thrillers that trailed “The Exorcist” and “The Omen” throughout the 1970s and early ’80s. Egregiously unsatisfying ending — reportedly one of several shot by helmer Nick Hamm — and lack of high-voltage shocks will be enough to generate unfavorable word-of-mouth among undemanding genre fans. No one else will bother. Expect “Godsend” to be consigned quickly to homevid purgatory.
High school biology teacher Paul Duncan (Greg Kinnear) dashes through a rainy inner-cityscape — avoiding being mugged only because the knife-wielding thug is a former student. He arrives home in time to help wife Jessie (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) supervise a birthday party for Adam (Cameron Bright), their beloved 8-year-old son. Domestic scene conveys love, warmth and overall contentment. So, of course, it takes only about 10 minutes for something dreadful to happen.
Hamm skillfully sustains suspense during a shopping spree that climaxes with wrenching yet discreetly rendered tragedy: Adam is killed in a freakish auto mishap.
Immediately after the funeral, Adam’s grieving parents are approached by Dr. Richard Wells (Robert De Niro), a seemingly compassionate and reasonable-sounding scientist who proposes an ethically dubious (and highly illegal) procedure: He will clone cells of their dead son so Jessie can give birth to him all over again. Jessie readily accepts the risk, Paul overcomes his initial reluctance — and a Faustian bargain is struck.
To ensure the experiment remains a secret, Paul and Jessie agree to quit their jobs, sever contacts with friends and family, and resettle in a small town near Wells’ Godsend Fertility Clinic. The cloning is successful — or so it seems — and the Duncans remain in their new home to raise their born-again child. Wells continues to be a frequent visitor and close observer, familiar enough to be greeted as “Uncle Richard” by the new and improved Adam (Cameron Bright again).
After Adam’s eighth birthday, however, he begins to exhibit strange, often hostile behavior. Worse, he’s troubled by nightmarish visions of burning classrooms, trapped students, lethal claw hammers — and a very bad little boy who looks a lot like him. Wells insists the dreams are nothing more than “night terrors.” But Paul suspects otherwise, and his worst fears are entirely justified.
To their credit, Hamm and scripter Mark Bomback avoid graphic mayhem while striving for subtly unsettling atmospherics. In this, they are aided by moodily-lit lensing of Kramer Morgenthau and nimble editing of Steve Mirkovich and Niven Howie.
But the surface gloss does little to disguise the inherent pulpiness of the material. And the predictability of the plot undercuts game efforts on both sides of the cameras.
De Niro doggedly struggles to maintain a facade of benign sincerity during first half of “Godsend,” but his character is so obviously an archetypical mad scientist that his best efforts are inadvertently comical. Also funny, unfortunately, is nervous tic that makes Wells look like a land-locked version of Capt. Queeg from “The Caine Mutiny” — during moments of stress, he rattles steel balls like worry beads.
In another break from light comedy roles, Kinnear impresses with an affecting portrayal of a man torn between paternal love and mounting dread. Even more here than in “Auto Focus,” he demonstrates a no-sweat ability to handle heavily dramatic parts with a bare minimum of comic relief. Romijn-Stamos is persuasive and sympathetic, despite being saddled with a few too many crying scenes. Bright works hard but often appears adrift, particularly during the anti-climactic finale.
It’s worth noting that pic’s advertising tagline — “Adam Duncan. Born: Dec. 11, 1987. Died: Dec. 12, 1995. Born Sept. 23, 1996.” – is a virtual reprise of the tag used to promote “Audrey Rose,” Robert Wise’s not-dissimilar 1977 thriller about a possibly reincarnated little girl.