Like its synthetic creature, Dren (Delphine Chanéac), Vincenzo Natali’s unwieldy but provocative thriller recombines DNA from many different movie and literary sources. For example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where an overreaching scientist tampers with the sacred fundamentals of life, achieving godlike powers but with unexpected consequences. Natali explores this hoary theme with apt, flippant gravity, updating it with canny hipness, but subjecting it to too many mutations to bring it fully to life.
Mad scientists have come a long way since Victor Frankenstein — here they’re driven not so much by the desire to penetrate nature’s secrets as by the need to advance their careers and add to their income. At first, Elsa (Sarah Polley, who seems to be pursuing a solid career sideline in the horror genre) and Clive (Adrien Brody) don’t seem to have any ambition beyond splicing together a stew of interspecies DNA to come up with a creature that looks like a giant animated pierog. From this squirmy, vaguely phallic hybrid, they hope to derive new miracle drugs for the pharmaceutical company funding their research.
|Splice | Directed by Lorenzo Natali | Written by Lorenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, and Doug Taylor | With Sarah Polley, Adrien Brody, Delphine Chanéac, David Hewlett, and Brandon McGibbon | Warner Bros. | 104 minutes|
That’s not their real dream, however. They have a secret project, but it verges on the taboo. Not so much an old-fashioned moral taboo as a practical one: their cutthroat corporate sponsors don’t see any immediate profit in their proposal. So, on the sly, they work on another endeavor: adding to a genome mix some human DNA to create a new, humanoid species with unknown attributes and potential.
Why? Maybe just because it’s possible. And fun. With their retro vinyl-record collection and enigmatic T-shirts, the couple seem like bored professional thirtysomethings, frivolous and whimsical. But a newborn unnatural species, like a child, changes everything. Once Dren is born and goes through its permutations, Elsa and Clive must make choices and accept responsibilities. Once they’re confronted with the consequences of their actions, their backstories and psychological complexes start to unravel, mirroring Dren’s metamorphoses.
Natali demonstrates his grasp of the mechanics of horror, with each stage in Dren’s development teased at but withheld until its sudden revelation. His suspense tactics conjure Ridley Scott’s Alien and David Cronenberg’s The Fly before settling uneasily into an incarnation similar to Roger Donaldson’s Species. And as he demonstrated in his previous film, Cube, Natali also has a knack for integrating setting into his narrative. When he shifts his focus from the stark, white, depersonalized lab to a snowbound barn at Elsa’s abandoned family farm, the tone alters from the cold irony of the institutional surroundings to the haunted, threatening intimacy of the old homestead.
That’s where Elsa, Clive, and Natali start taking seriously some of the issues their experiment raises. Like motherhood, child abuse, the Electra complex, gender identity, animal cruelty, corporate amorality, the moral obligations of science, and the limits of kinky sexual behavior. Too many issues, perhaps, for one organism to handle, regardless of the number of DNA strands that were spliced together to form it and the unlikely stages of development it might undergo. By the time it all starts taking on the look of The Mothman Prophecies, Natali’s Splice has gotten a bit thin.