Film Review: ‘Closer to God’

Billy Senese's small-scale sci-fi suspenser updates 'Frankenstein' for the era of scientific cloning.

Courtesy of LC Pictures

A small-scale sci-fi suspenser, “Closer to God” updates Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story — complete with protags named Victor, Mary and Elizabeth — as commentary on the controversial emerging science of cloning. Here, our modern mad scientist is a sober if obsessive geneticist whose creation of the first human-clone baby stirs a volatile mix of media attention and public protest. A greater danger, however, turns out to already reside in his own household. This Nashville-shot first feature for writer-director Billy Senese is an intelligent, restrained take on genre conventions, but those seeking fantasy thrills may find it too dry, while neither the ideas nor the eventual scares are quite original or surprising enough to elevate “Closer” from the respectable to the memorable. Pic opens July 3 in limited release; modest prospects should be a bit brighter in simultaneous VOD launch.

Dr. Victor Reed (Jeremy Childs) is a humorlessly committed biological scientist with a privately funded genetic experimental laboratory secreted away on a locked floor in a hospital. We first encounter him as he’s delivering Elizabeth, a seemingly normal infant who’s nonetheless very special as the first of her kind. Reluctantly if cryptically announcing this breakthrough to the public (he refuses to name anyone involved in the baby’s conception or birth besides himself, or to let her be seen as yet), he braves an immediate firestorm of pushy press inquiries, as well as outrage from those who believe such scientific explorations represent a grave offense against God and nature. Others note the great medical advances that cloning might help instigate, but they’re generally shouted down by the pious and appalled.

The outcry is such that government authorities are pressured to drum up criminal charges against Victor. Worried about security, he transfers the baby from the lab to his own home, a gated country estate where wife Claire (Shannon Hoppe) is already fed up with his workaholic neglect of their own “normal” family, including two preschool daughters. While she can’t help but take a maternal interest in Elizabeth, the tense atmosphere worsens as protestors and media discover the baby’s new location — as leaked by lab assistant Laura (Emily Landham), who has serious ethical and safety worries over the doctor’s treatment of his experimental progeny.

Perhaps even more perilous than the rising clamor outside, however, is a ticking time bomb within: A couple (Shelean Newman, David Alford) who work for the household are also charged with minding a murkily explained older child who is evidently the product of a less successful, earlier cloning attempt. Kept in barred quarters away from the main building (and little seen until the end), the increasingly violent, misshapen Ethan (Isaac Disney) inevitably busts out to go on a rampage, terrorizing all in the climactic reel.

While this story may recall everything from the 1931 “Frankenstein” to “It’s Alive” and 2009’s “Splice,” Senese downplays the horror aspects until late in the game, preferring to focus on the ethical issues of cloning from various conflicting viewpoints. But seriously presented as they are, the arguments are familiar and not all that compellingly acted out. Nor does the eventual monster-on-the-loose action feel very fresh, though it’s staged tautly enough. The result is ultimately admirable more for what it resists — the usual sci-fi horror exploitation cliches — than for the watchable yet somewhat underwhelming impact of a narrative that feels perhaps a little too reined-in for its own good.

Performances and tech/design contributions are fine. Evan Spencer Brace’s extra-wide-format lensing is likewise pro, though to an extent it seems wasted on a production so resourcefully yet borderline-claustrophobically limited in physical scope.

Film Review: ‘Closer to God’

Reviewed online, San Francisco, July 1, 2015. Running time: 81 MIN.

  • Production: An Uncork’d Entertainment and Breaking Glass Pictures release of an LC Pictures presentation. Produced by Billy Senese, Jeremy Childs, Jonathan Rogers, Jennifer Spriggs. Executive producers, Billy Senese, Erika Senese.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Billy Senese. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Evan Spencer Brace; editor, Jonathan Rogers; music, Thomas Nola; production designer, Brian Parker; costume designers, Buffy Brooks, Velvet Elizabeth; art director, Rachel Edwards; set decorator, Danny Dones; sound/sound designer, Nicole Drouhard; special effects, Doug Mallette, Daryl Stamps; visual effects supervisor, Scott Brooks; assistant director, Drew Langer; casting, Jeremy Childs.
  • With: Jeremy Childs, Shelean Newman, Shannon Hoppe, David Alford, Isaac Disney, Olivia Lyle, Jake Speck, Emily Landham, Josh Graham, John Schuck, Josh Childs, Piper Hoppe, Anna Garges.