Nobody was particularly happy that Joan Crawford’s final big-screen performance was in 1970’s “Trog,” probably least of all the actress herself. But that very silly movie about a troglodyte found living in the modern age is at least more fun than “William,” in which a Neanderthal is cloned from an ancient caveman’s DNA. Instead of cheesy sci-fi horror, this is an earnest teen drama of a “Mom and Dad, why am I different from the others?” variety, one that ekes amazingly little excitement from its protagonist’s status as an evolutionary anomaly.
Tim Disney’s film strikes a bland compromise between science-fantasy, suspense-melodrama and family entertainment, developing no element to a level that generates more than mild interest. It’s a polished but dull enterprise that leaves one wondering just what the filmmakers had in mind. “William” opens on one screen each in Los Angeles and New York on April 12, with further expansion likely to be minor.
At fictive Wallace University, science professor Julian Reed (Waleed Zuaiter) enthralls his students by bucking traditional wisdom regarding Neanderthals, who are thought to have gone extinct about 35,000 years ago in a competition for survival with the first anatomically modern humans. He also posits what would happen if a way were found to produce a living individual from the non-fossilized, bog-preserved Neanderthal body in the college’s collection. Bioengineering grad student Barbara Sullivan (Maria Dizzia) approaches him one day with the come-on that she “knows how to do it” — clone said caveman, that is.
They soon become an academic power couple, entwined in private as well as professional life. Ignoring misgivings from his mentor, Dr. Thomas (Beth Grant), the school administration, and later a curious and appalled public, the two decide to go ahead with their Mary Shelley-esque project, Barbara giving birth nine months later to an infant with that ancient corpse’s DNA. The marriage eventually breaks up, however, as Barbara’s maternal instincts clash with Julian’s desire to use young William as a lab experiment.
Nonetheless, both parents remain involved in the life of the offspring (played at age 10 by Callum Airlie, then by Will Brittain) as he grows from a tyke with a blunt, broad nose and prominent brow to a young man with an exceptionally strong (and hairy) body. Despite a somewhat sheltered upbringing, he inevitably suffers the woes of being conspicuously “different”: He’s bullied as a child; strangers stares at him; and when he attempts a real kiss with the girl (Morgan Taylor Campbell) who’s his acting partner in school plays, she recoils. Though he scores high academically, he has trouble with symbols, metaphors and even jokes, his brain being wired for literal-mindedness; he also has an odd, stilted way of speaking.
Yet William is mostly just a very nice boy, and in such an uncomplicated way — beyond his primitive features and other surface idiosyncrasies — that it produces very little drama. The pedestrian screenplay by Disney and J.T. Allen tries to stir occasional worry over our protagonist’s supposed “savage” core. But the film and Brittain’s likable enough performance don’t make that threat at all palpable; nor is enough tension stirred in William’s relationship with his somewhat exploitative father. Given these two inert sources of conflict, the crisis triggered by their climactic clash feels gratuitous and unconvincing. There are also tone-deaf individual moments, quite literally so when stage partners Brittain and Campbell sing, but also in stretches of on-the-nose dialogue and pat scene dynamics.
“William” is a potentially interesting idea, but its makers don’t do anything compelling with it, either from the standpoint of probing emergent frontiers in scientific ethics, or simply creating a good what-if melodrama. Vaguely similar past movies that focus on near-supernatural misfits, like “Powder” or “The Mind of Mr. Soames,” achieve far more poignancy. Downplaying its own fantastical conceit, “William” turns by default into an adolescent outsider portrait so tame it could have starred Robby Benson 45 years ago.
Set in the Pacific Northwest but shot in British Columbia, the film captures some handsome coastal scenery. Indeed, DP’s Nelson & Graham Talbot’s widescreen lensing represents the most distinctive element in a tech/design package that’s otherwise competently turned but — like the film in general — lacks assertiveness.