DNA (1996): Adhering to Formula

Matty surrenders himself to the joyous unoriginality of this solid monster flick.

They say familiarity breeds contempt. But in the realm of DTV — and, of course, when done well — the familiar and its cousins, the homage and the rip-off, usually, at least, result in an entertaining ninety minutes or so.

Case in point? William Mesa’s DNA.

Cited by producers Interlight Pictures as “Alien (1979) meets Indiana Jones” in the press materials they bandied about the 1997 American Film Market, such a description does a tremendous disservice to just how blissfully derivative this sturdy monster flick really is. Because in addition to Scott and Spielberg’s respective classics, DNA liberally pilfers from two more Spielberg essentials, Jaws (1975) and Jurassic Park (1993); Jack Arnold’s Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954); and, even, John Huston’s The African Queen (1951) before swiping its entire last act wholesale from the mud-slathered finale of John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) — a, erm, ‘tribute’ furthered by the film’s neat, KNB-fashioned beastie looking suspiciously similar to Stan Winston’s original Predator design, when the intergalactic hunter was more weird space lizard and less extraterrestrial Rastafarian. None of that’s a negative, mind. VFX tech turned scripter Nick Davis’ screenplay might be a total patchwork, but spotting what bit comes from where is part of the fun. And irrespective of Davis (who’d previously penned Project Shadowchaser II (1994) and III (1995), and who would go on to supervise the VFX on The Dark Knight (2008)) constantly shifting the goalposts of his own inner logic, by and large, DNA delivers the goods. It’s a solid, action-soaked sci-shocker with a cool, man-in-a-rubber-suit creature that would make a great supporting feature to any of the bigger, theatrically released monster mashes of the ‘90s, from The Relic (1995) and Species (1995), to Mimic (1997) and Anaconda (1997).

Mark Dacascos stars as a noble, Borneo-based GP who goes toe-to-toe with a deranged explorer-cum-mad scientist (a pleasingly hammy Jürgen Prochnow) and the snarling, mythic alien diety-thing (Pumpkinhead II (1993) creature performer Mark McCraken) the crazed medico has genetically replicated inside his rainforest bolt hole. Shooting, screaming, and assorted mayhem ensues. 

The second Davis script directed by Mesa following the equally enjoyable Star Wars (1977)/Terminator (1984) hybrid Terminal Force (1995), Mesa helms DNA with brisk efficiency. Another VFX wiz by trade, the meat n’ potatoes Mesa, a pioneer of the Introvision system and the chap behind such stunning FX sequences as the train crash in The Fugitive (1993), isn’t the most visually bombastic of directors but he does exhibit a decent command of mood and tone. His trump card is the natural mugginess of DNA’s jungle location. Shot in late spring ‘96 in the Philippines, on the cusp of the country’s rainy season, there’s a sweaty, dank quality to the film that’s augmented by Charles Wood’s stylishly ruinous production design and the murky yet textured colour schemes of Gerry Lively’s atmospheric cinematography. 

Mesa also flits between DNA’s plot strands with ease and confidence. As already noted, it’s shamelessly copycat fluff, and Mesa is better suited to the suspense, jumps, and cartoony backbiting than he is the underbaked character nonsense (the inclusion of Robin McKee’s CIA agent/potential love interest and Tom Taus’ indigenous-kid-in-peril is pure filler), but he keeps the film rattling along and boredom completely at bay. And sometimes, that’s all you need.

Prior to being paraded around the 1997 AFM, DNA premiered in the US on HBO earlier in the year. It was scooped up for British video distribution by BGM, hitting cassette in May 1998, and was released theatrically in Greece and Asia.

USA/Philippines ● 1996 ● Sci-Fi, Horror ● 97mins

Mark Dacascos, Jürgen Prochnow, Robin McKee ● Dir. William Mesa Wri. Nick Davis

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