(by Dustin Putman
The clinical twistedness of David Cronenberg and the ready chills of 2001's smashing creature-feature "Jeepers Creepers" converge in "Splice," a barrier-breaking mixture of sci-fi, horror and romantic drama that takes its inspirations seriously even as it goes off on its own wildly creative tangents. Echoes of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" tale are also in evidence, but only as a springboard for a timely, archly modern study of the fine line between the benefits of scientific and technological advancements and the potential danger that comes with one's own irresponsible misuse of these things. Article continues below
Young, ambitious, and just a little careless, Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are cutting-edge bio-genetic engineers who have created a brand new organism by combining a swirl of different animals' DNA codes. It's a controversial practice, to say the least, but behind closed doors Elsa dares to take their experiment one step further by also adding a human's genetic imprint. Clive warns her of the ethical boundary she is daring to cross, but she makes the excuse that it could be their one real shot at a breakthrough to aid mankind. Besides, she says, "This won't be human—not completely." The fruit of their labor is a human/animal hybrid they name Dren (Delphine Chaneac), growing both physically and intellectually at an exponential rate. Elsa is at first fascinated by the idea of being able to study their creation's entire lifecycle in a compacted period of time, and then she and Clive find themselves connecting to Dren on a deeper level when a sort of parent-child relationship develops. In actuality, however, they're playing with fire, dealing with a life form they have no research on and no way of knowing what she will ultimately become.
Thank goodness for independent filmmaking. "Splice" was shot in Toronto on a budget of $25-million without the assist of a major Hollywood studio. Director Vincenzo Natali (he of 1998's effective cult fantasy-thriller "Cube") was able to make the movie he wanted to make, based on a brave, envelope-pushing screenplay he co-wrote with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor. The picture went on the premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and, through a stroke of surprising fate, was subsequently picked up by executive-producer Joel Silver for Warner Bros. Pictures and Dark Castle Entertainment. The film is set to be released wide in theaters, and fully intact. Prospective viewers who have seen the trailer and other advertising, which misleadingly make the picture appear to be conventional and full of predictable jump scares, have no idea what they're in for. Had "Splice" been created all along as a studio project, it's easy to see how protagonists Clive and Elsa might have been stripped of their flaws and not always savory actions, while Dren would have been turned into an evil, one-note villain instead of the carefully layered, deliciously ambiguity-laden character original she is in the finished project. Also gone would have been some majorly shocking and transgressive third act plot points that will go unmentioned here, turning a spooky horror show into something far more provocative and thematically complex.
The major find of "Splice" is the breathtaking work of Delphine Chaneac (2006's "The Pink Panther"), as Dren. Bald, hairless, and hauntingly beautiful in the role, Chaneac possesses an ethereal, otherworldly quality that is perfect for a character neither fully human nor animal. With no dialogue and aided by seamless visual effects that rely on giving Dren subtle differentiations from you and I—her eyes are wider and slightly more spread apart, while she has a tail complete with stinger, for instance—Chaneac nonetheless develops a full, unforgettable screen creation, one that can be heartbreakingly vulnerable one moment and thoroughly frightening and threatening the next. That the viewer is never sure what she is going to do and what she is capable of—her precarious relationship with a cat boils over with portent, while her part-loving, part-antagonistic bond with surrogate mom and dad Elsa and Clive resembles that of a typical teenage girl until it goes several shades grimmer—only increases the icky tension. Unusual in the best way and never less than stunning, Chaneac's performance is one of the best this year.
The antiseptic tone of the opening act, temporarily lacking a distinctly emotional throughline, promptly corrects itself once Dren is born and Clive's and Elsa's characters warm to the viewer. Adrien Brody (2008's "Cadillac Records") and Sarah Polley (2004's "Dawn of the Dead") give strong turns in their own right as said co-workers and lovers, their moral lapses and poor judgments eating away at their very lives in far more ways than just via Dren. Brody and Polley feel not only like authentic regular people rather than movie stars, but they are also plausible as scientists; one senses there is more going on behind their eyes than just the reading of a script. Especially intriguing is Elsa's arc as a career woman with little interest at the onset in children growing into someone who loves Dren as a daughter, yet fearful that her own troubled childhood of neglect and abuse is beginning to rub off on her makeshift attempts at parenting. In what is more or less a three-character show—there are a few peripherals, such as Clive's younger brother Gavin (Brandon McGibbon), but they mostly stay along the sidelines—director Vincenzo Natali keeps the narrative tight, taut and claustrophobic. While a little expansion in scope might have been appreciated—save for a farm setting that comes into play in the second half, the movie features next to no exteriors and a cloudy sense of place and even time (is this set in the present or the near-future?)—it doesn't significantly harm one's nail-biting involvement in the story as it plays out.
Is "Splice" making a positive or negative comment on contemporary science and stem-cell research? There are elements within that suggest director Natali's instincts could go either way, but a final scene loaded with subtext sneakily points further in one direction. In addition to this is Dren—eerie, scared, curious, and capably lethal—an act against nature who didn't ask for this lot in life. Ultimately, the price she must pay is just as big as that of Clive and Elsa. Besides its absorbing ghoulishness—yes, it does work as a strict genre flick if a person doesn't care to dig below the surface—"Splice" is terrifically smart, rife with topics to debate and discuss. How many studio-released horror pictures of the last several years can attest to that?