Directed By Vincenzo Natali
Starring Sarah Polley, Adrien Brody and Delphine Chanéac
Boyfriend/girlfriend genetic engineer duo Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are the superstars of their field, having combined the genes of numerous animal species to make an entirely new slug-like life form, the chemical enzymes from which could revolutionize medicine. For their encore, they plan to throw human DNA into their genetic melting pot to create a new hybrid creature that would offer a more potent enzyme, potentially curing all human disease.
Naturally, the higher-ups at their lab are uneasy about something so controversial and cut funding, choosing instead to channel the early research into something easily marketable. Clive and Elsa secretly push forward with their work regardless, successfully creating Dren – a partially human creature who grows more rapidly than they expected, displaying increasing cognitive development and eerily child-like humanity. Clearly the two scientists neglected to consider that playing god has consequences too; after all, splicing common garden vegetables with aborted fetal tissue and pencil shavings is how Jedward were born unto the world…
Splice wears its Promethean influences proudly on its sleeve (Elsa and Clive borrow their names from Bride of Frankenstein actors Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive) and is equally concerned with delving into similar issues as Mary Shelley. Flipping the genders of the Frankenstein/monster father-son relationship, director Natali uses Dren to explore a similar parental mother-daughter dynamic to different ends as Elsa shifts from scientific observer to adoptive mother as their creation develops and matures. It’s the dense character drama that provides the crux of Splice‘s thematic issues as two overly inexperienced and inherently incapable parents attempt to raise an increasingly unpredictable child, while their dysfunctional family dynamic becomes increasingly twisted as a result of their parental failings and upbringings.
It’s a focus hinged on the quality of its actors, and thankfully Adrien Brody and the criminally underrated Sarah Polley are incredibly great. The film’s tone straddles that awkward-to-nail tone between seriously screwed-up character-based horror and dark comedy, while the story wanders into some profoundly messed-up corners, which with the wrong actors could descend into outright hokeyness, but Brody and Polley pull it off perfectly. More impressive, both as a performance and work of creature design is Delphine Chanéac as Dren. Using a seamless blend of prosthetic and CG to augment the actress’ face and create an alien look and physique, her performance is expressive without being vocal – its own fascinating hybrid of endearingly infantile child-like inquisitiveness, imposing, primal animalism and eerily seductive beauty.
The film’s allegorical themes spread deep and wide as Natali touches on everything from parental abuse, abortion, the nature/nurture debate, the moral quandary of genetic engineering and, naturally, the science vs. god issue. It’s to Natali’s credit that the film manages to keep all these plates spinning so harmoniously and intelligently without overwhelming the film, delivering a relatively low-key but utterly weird, incredibly engrossing and entirely creepy sci-fi horror with intelligence to spare. Which makes it all the more unfortunate and jarring when the film stumbles slightly at the finish line, resorting to stock horror tricks and a routine woodland chase scene. That he threads in a delightfully dark and utterly wrong ending lessens the blow, but its a shame Natali took a detour through more generic territory along the way, even considering the film’s prototypical monster film lineage.
Even with its missteps, Splice is an excellent piece of Cronenbergian weirdness and the kind of film that occurs all too rarely: an incredibly dark, creepy science fiction horror that doesn’t ditch smarts in its attempts to conjure up scares.
Splice is showing in UK cinemas now.