The murky-yucky opening credits of Splice give a hint as to what's next: Something icky this way comes. A modern day Frankenstein, Splice is a sci fi horror hybrid, kind of like the chimerical creature at the center of this parable of science run amok. Splice plays on the fears of genetic tinkering, but also explores scientific hubris, bad parenting, and corporate science in a smart, creepy, disturbing film.
Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) are genetic engineers. (Their names are playful allusions to Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive, two stars of James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein.) They work for a pharmaceutical company, experimenting with gene splicing to create hybrid lifeforms whose enzymes, it is hoped, will lead to new drugs for humanity's ills. They're passionate about their work, and also about the slug-like Fred and Ginger, their squirmy, gooey, living laboratories. Fred and Ginger look more like enormous inside-out slugs than garden variety slugs, but to Elsa and Clive, they are things of beauty. And to the world, Elsa and Clive are rock star scientists -- they've been on the cover of Wired magazine. But when their corporate masters threaten to pull the plug on their work, an ill-conceived plan is hatched -- they create a human chimera, a mix of human and "other" DNA. Just what that other DNA is remains a mystery, but the resulting lifeform, H-50, looks like a fetal rabbit crossed with a naked chicken, with a little scorpion mixed in for good measure. Kind of cute, but also kind of icky. H-50 grows up fast, eventually becomes more humanoid (she grows arms that can hug her creators), and is renamed Dren (Abigail Chu plays the child Dren, Delphine Chaneac is the adult Dren). Grown up Dren, with her wide-set eyes (and, looking past the persistent cleft in her skull), looks a bit like a young Michelle Pfeiffer, which is to say, pretty darn attractive. As psychological complications go, creating an attractive monster is far worse than creating an ugly one.
Directed by Vincenzo Natali, a former storyboard artist (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Splice is a terrifically creepy, crazy, provocative, and stylish film. The movie's look is persistently industrial-dreary and grungy, the color pallette dominated by fluorescent blue-greens and dirty browns. Could anything but a monster be born and raised in a world so grimly institutional?
Casting Polley and Brody was inspired -- they are neither one of them ordinary looking, and both are believably tormented by the unexpected development (and literal and figurative growing pains) of their creation. Elsa, especially, views Dren as more than a test-tube experiment, but her maternal impulses are badly warped by her own only hinted-at childhood with her Mommy dearest. As for Dren, she evokes a confusing welter of feelings: dread, revulsion, pity, sympathy, affection, attraction. Dren is a marvelous creation, both technically (she's a seamlessly spliced-together hybrid of different film technologies), and as a character -- she's an imaginatively and fully realized, brand new being.
Splice inspires more shivers and repugnance than outright fear, and the gore is judiciously applied so as to maximize its effect. The visual effects are very fine, and the evocatively shplicky, shloopy, chirpy sound effects add immensely to the experience of the film. Splice is an intelligent movie that's interested in the weighty ethical issues raised by genetic meddling, and by Promethean scientists unbound by moral insight and foresight, and inspired by equal parts glory and greed. It also explores complicated family and couple dynamics made even more confusing by the human ability to procreate in ways that the birds and bees never imagined. As it was with Frankenstein, so it is with Splice: in the end we are left to wonder who is the real monster.