Superstar genetic engineers Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) specialise in splicing together DNA from different animals to create incredible new hybrids. Now they want to use human DNA in a hybrid that could revolutionise science and medicine, but when the pharmaceutical company that funds their research forbids it, Clive and Elsa secretly conduct their own experiments. The result is Dren (Delphine Chanéac), an amazing, strangely beautiful creature that exhibits uncommon intelligence and array of unexpected physical developments. And though, at first, Dren exceeds their wildest dream, she begins to grow and learn at an accelerated rate – and threatens to become their worst nightmare.
As a discussion-starter on the ethics and consequences of the science of gene-splicing, Vincenzo Natali’s modern spin on the Frankenstein story offers a little too much B-monster movie and not quite enough New Scientist magazine. But, whether musing over scenes of inter-species, incestually-tainted sex or wondering aloud 'The Pianist, King Kong, Predators, Splice – just what sort of film legacy will Adrien Brody leave?", a discussion-starter it will be, that much is certain.
Natali and his leads Brody, Sarah Polley and stunning newcomer Delphine Chaneac offer up some astonishing movie moments, though whether you gasp in awe or titter in derision will very much depend upon your willingness to afford the film the same level of earnestness everyone involved with the production obviously did. At the reviewer screening SBS attended, both reactions were forthcoming.
The film plunges straight into the hoary old 'science-vs.-commerce’ debate from frame 1. Funded by a corporate behemoth, cutting-edge researchers Clive (Brody) and Elsa (Polley) are deeply in love with each other and their shared work – the construction of hybrid DNA organisms whose properties can be exploited across all manner of industries. The next logical step in their research is experimentation with human DNA, but the funding executives refuse to back this PR-unfriendly development stage. Clive, somewhat reluctantly, and Elsa, her ambition overriding her good sense, secretly initiate DNA splicing of human and animal genomes.
Their work results in a mutated female human form that assumes the name Dren and that reflects the multi-stranded DNA origins of her specie – a widened brow and eyes, hairless, no vocal cords, a lethally-spiked tail, multi-jointed legs. Over a very short period of time, she grows into a stunning animal-human creature (played with balletic elegance by Parisian native Chaneac) but who must be hidden away from the world by Clive and Elsa as they continue their research and experiments. Existential tensions arise between the creators and their creation – familial, sexual, spiritual, emotional – until Dren assumes her final adult form.
Canadian-born Natali has a proven track record in stylish, visceral sci-fi/fantasy. His debut, the ultra low-budget film-puzzle Cube (1997) and its follow-up, Cypher (2002), both enjoy cult status. With Splice, he is ambitiously reaching beyond the visual realm in which he feels most comfortable and delves into the territory of hot-button issue filmmaking. The key question Natali could have addressed is best summed up by Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr. Ian Malcolm, in Steven Spielberg’s genetics-gone-wrong adventure, Jurassic Park (1993): '....your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."
Unfortunately, the complexities of the 'should we/shouldn’t we’ debate becomes peripheral, with the script preferring to focus on the personal issues of the brash, young scientists. This is a mistake as co-writers Natali, Antoinette Bryant and Doug Taylor leave the lead characters frustratingly underdeveloped – Brody manages to rise above it, but Polley is particularly underserved. Elsa is never more than one-dimensional, existing only to serve the immediate purpose of any given scene. Ambitious ballbreaker? Check. Mother figure? Check. Woman scorned? Check.
The director and his cohorts do triumph visually, though. In creating the various developmental stages of Dren, creature effects supervisor Howard Berger and Bob Munroe’s special effects unit at C.O.R.E Digital Pictures have given life to one of the most accomplished live-action/CGI melds in film history. Delphine Chaneac wondrously creates the physicality of the adult Dren and the effects team honour her work with skill and subtlety. Also, Natali and his cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata (La Vie en rose, 2007; Micmacs, 2009) have crafted a beautiful-looking film, from the silvery chill of the early scenes in the corporate labs to the autumnal glow of the barn that Dren comes to call home.
Despite the guiding hand of fantasy maestro Guillermo del Toro, serving as Executive Producer, Splice degenerates into an old-fashioned monster-movie hunt in the final reel, which is a shame. David Cronenberg avoided that pitfall in his similarly-themed remake of The Fly (1984), a like-minded film which grew in both emotional intensity and horrific impact as it played out. But Natali’s cautionary re-imagining of the 'mad-scientist’ films of a bygone era for a society unsure of what its tampering with nature will bring offers just enough moral and emotional ambiguity to make for an engaging if occasionally icky movie-going experience.