It's hard to imagine there could be another movie this summer as strange and creepy as Splice. Thought not entirely successful at what it sets out to do, the new sci-fi thriller deserves points for how boldly it makes the effort. There are a lot of ideas floating around in its near two hours, some of them are still sinking in.
Splice tells the story of two hipster scientists on the bleeding edge of new technology and research. Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) have used gene-splicing to create interspecies hybrids out of several different DNA strands. The results are Fred and Ginger, a pair of almost formless creatures that look like ribbed slugs (phallic for whose pleasure?), act slightly like pets, and have proven useful in producing a protein that makes cattle healthier. Now that this experiment is done, the pair want to move to the next step and introduce human tissue into the mix. Their corporate overlords say no, the more important task is synthesizing the special protein so the shareholders can start earning some of their investment back. Plus, the moral outrage over human cloning would bury them all. It's a tale as old as mad scientist movies: those with the knowledge want to push forward, those with the cash want to play it safe.
Not content to take "no" for an answer, Elsa leads the charge to create a new hybrid with human DNA just to prove it's possible. Clive reluctantly goes along. It's his function in their relationship, keeping her remotely in check--only their new creation has other ideas. The new cell structure replicates at an alarming rate, and the specimen is birthed prematurely. It quickly starts growing, turning more humanoid as it goes. Even if it weren't too late to turn back, Elsa becomes attached. Forget the ethical ramifications, she can't kill her child.
The advertising for Splice would have you believe it's a deadly-monster-stalks-human-prey-type of movie, something along the lines of Species and Mimic. In actuality, it's not even close. Splice is a science parable, a cautionary tale about the hubris of thinking you have all the answers. It's like the Patton Oswalt routine about scientists always thinking about coulda instead of shoulda. Great, you created life. Now what are you going to do with it?
Director Vincenzo Natali (Cube), who co-wrote the screenplay with first-timer Antoinette Terry Bryant and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale-screenwriter Doug Taylor, isn't really concerned with "shouldn't" either. What excites him is what happens to the people after they cross the line. Elsa names her new child Dren (it's "nerd" backwards), and she takes to the young lady in all the ways a mother should. This is an ironic switch for Clive, who prior to this could not convince her to have a child with him. Elsa has mommy issues, some of which she will take out on Dren. As their creation grows, the couple become like real parents, and that includes all the frustration, emotional blackmail, and wonder that comes with the job. Not to mention the added strain of having to keep your progeny under wraps because she never should have existed in the first place.
Dren is a combination of CGI and prosthetics. She is played by two actresses. Abigail Chu is in the make-up for the early stages, and French actress Delphine Chanéac takes over as Dren enters adolescence (the rapid growth continues, she is a teenager in a matter of weeks). The design of the character is pretty cool, a cocktail of gargoyle, space alien, and Björk. Chanéac moves around like a curious bird, speaking in clicks and coos. I wasn't so keen on the language, honestly, it was like a synthesized version of Jodie Foster's Nell gibberish. Other than that, though, I have little complaint about the way Dren is crafted.
It's all terribly bizarre and also strangely riveting. The plot stays relatively contained (IMDB lists a cast of seven), though it takes some twists that cause genuine surprise and bewilderment. There are a couple of what-the-hell moments I am still not sure were a good idea. The film also doesn't know when to quit, and its final major twist (not counting the very last gotcha) may have gone too far, pushing Splice to be everything it had spent the previous 90% of its running time not being. In movies, as in science, sometimes the money men must be appeased. I could have maybe done with a slight cranking up of the ick quotient, as well as the overall atmosphere of dread. Splice was a movie I was more intrigued by than involved in, and there was never enough of a fear factor to push me all the way to the edge of my seat.
Still, Vincenzo Natali manages to pull off a lot of style, and his push against horror conventions shows plenty of bravado. He also gets excellent performances out of his principal players, Sarah Polley, Adrien Brody, and especially Delphine Chanéac, who makes you believe she is more than an actress in a bald cap. She is Dren. I'm kind of surprised this movie is being released into the summer flotsam. It's got "off-season sleeper" written all over it.
Then again, we all could use an antidote against the big and the stupid that is the summer event movie. Splice just may be...well, not exactly that medicine, but possibly a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.