Splice is not what you think it is. Let’s get that out of the way. It’s been marketed as a sort of cerebral horror film, and that’s not… quite right. It’s certainly a way to get people into the theaters, and the commercials, all full of swooping beasties and cries of fear and shock certainly play that up, but really, that’s the last 10 minutes or so. Instead, it’s a steady, slow-burning exploration of several themes — of science, genetics, gender roles, family dynamics, sexual dysfunction, and…
Let me back up. By now, it’s likely that everyone has seen the numerous trailers for Splice. Personally, I avoided watching any after the first one came up — once I know I’m going to review a film, I try to absorb as little information as possible. In its simplest sense, the trailers get the general concept right. Directed by Vincenzo Natali (Cube), and written by Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, and Doug Taylor, it is indeed a science-gone-wrong picture. Two lovers and scientists, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), are tinkering with DNA and genetic material in a quest to develop a new protein that will pave the way for huge medical advancements. In order to do so, they splice together different animal DNA to create a pair of amoebic, slug-like organisms — brand new organisms and a revolution in their own right. Hungry and ambitious as they are, they take things one step further, splicing in human DNA to create yet another organism. Against Clive’s better judgment, they allow the organism to be born and it rapidly and unexpectedly develops into a strange, humanoid creature that they name Dren (Delphine Chanéac).
Eventually, Dren grows beyond their capability to safely hide her in their lab, so they move her out to Elsa’s abandoned farm in the country. Up until this point, the film’s plot was relatively predictable, sort of a smarter, less idiotic, and less ‘splodey version of Species — or a less melodramatic Frankenstein of the modern era, if you prefer a more intellectual comparison. Dren can’t speak, instead only uttering weird chirps and trilling noises, and while Clive grows wary of her rapid development, Elsa’s maternal feelings for the creature begin to blur the lines between scientific impartiality and motherly protectiveness.
And then the film just goes right off the goddamn rails. The Frankenstein theme that was prevalent for the first hour of its production evolves, much like Dren herself, into a completely bizarre and twisted vision of the darker alleys of humanity. Like me, I’m guessing that most viewers were waiting for the film’s climax, when Dren would become the monster that was alluded to. And that does happen — horribly and nightmarishly so. But not before we are forced to examine the monstrous acts that people are capable of first. I refuse to spoil it, but suffice it to say that it travels some very unexpected terrain that will likely leave people pretty uncomfortable, yet wholly engrossed. Clive and Elsa evolve (or devolve, depending on your thinking) psychologically and emotionally, just as much as Dren does physically, and the results are grimly lurid and at times flat-out disturbing.
Splice is many things. It is not so much a scientific cautionary tale as it is an examination of humanity, ethics, and perversity. It’s a jarring turn that’s taken roughly 60 minutes into the film, and it’s bolstered by solid direction by Natali, and the strong performances of its leads. It’s no news flash that Polley and Brody are excellent actors, which was why it was sort of a surprise to see them cast in what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill science fiction tale. Now I know that there’s nothing mundane about it. In fact, the first two acts, which seemed to drag in part and are only salvaged by their nuanced performances and by the compelling curiosity regarding what will become of Dren, now seems more like an elaborate setup than anything else.
The problem is that that setup is at times clumsily rendered. Polley’s motivations in the film are subtly alluded to, and her development is finely rendered and sensible, even as it descends into madness. Brody’s Clive is far less so — little to no backstory is given to his character, which makes his radical change less understandable. Polley absolutely carries the film, and Brody’s work is admirable, if somewhat underwritten. The film’s two subplots — one regarding the pressure by their higher-ups on them to produce a viable, moneymaking scientific breakthrough, and another concerning Clive’s brother Gavin (Brandon McGibbon), are rather superfluous and distracting. McGibbon’s supposed to represent a voice of reason and conscience, but instead he’s simply a nagging bore. Meanwhile, the film wastes the remarkable performance of Simona Maicanescu as Joan, the company president.
That isn’t to say that Splice is a bad film. Despite its occasional missteps and failures, it succeeds in one way that 90% of modern films fail — it’s interesting as hell. It’s a twisted tale of love, betrayal, demons both figurative and literal, and scientific and ethical boundaries that are shattered irreversibly. It feels like one of those films that started with a couple of fascinating ideas, and a full-length film was cobbled together around them — with mixed results. Regardless, that doesn’t make its bizarre and squirm-inducing ending any less effective, and it’s at many times an intelligent, if unpleasant, experience. Whether or not that satisfies you will be entirely up to your particular proclivities.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.