Splice (Canada/France/United States, 2009)

June 02, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Splice Poster

The trailer for Splice might lead a viewer to expect a low-budget retread of Species crossed with Aliens. However, although the film does indeed pilfer a scene directly from the latter movie, the trailer misrepresents its source. Splice is as much a psychological thriller and drama about bio-ethics as it is a horror movie. Like the vastly superior The Fly, it uses gore sparingly; delivering shocks to the audience is a secondary consideration. Despite its relative bravery in choosing not to embrace the Grand Guignol, Splice is a little too hit-or-miss to truly work. There's a lot going on in the movie - some of which is rich, compelling material - but director Vincenzo Natali's scattershot approach to his subject matter leaves the viewer left with a frustrating sense that interesting paths were bypassed in service of a narrative that offers few surprises and concludes with a cornball, jarring sequence that belongs in another movie - perhaps the one being advertised by the aforementioned trailer.

The curtain rises on a small group of scientists feverishly working in a laboratory that seems decidedly behind-the-times technologically. They are led by Clive (Adrien Brody) and his girlfriend, Elsa (Sarah Polley), the masterminds behind a genetic splicing project that has pharmaceutical implications. Clive and Elsa have plans to go beyond the creation of a pair of slug-like creatures that have excited their corporate sponsors - they want to do things with human DNA. This possibility is quickly shot down by their boss (David Hewlett), but that doesn't stop the headstrong Elsa from moving ahead, followed meekly by Clive. Soon, using a high-tech womb, the scientists have given "birth" to Dren (Delphine Chaneac), a hybrid of human and various other creatures who walks on two legs (although they look more like the limbs of kangaroos than people), sprouts wings, breathes under water, and can communicate using Scrabble letters. She's also sexy and sexual, as Clive comes to learn when Dren develops a crush on him. The creature's final, most surprising ability is left undiscovered until the movie's final fifteen minutes when, unfortunately, the filmmakers decide to undermine their story by revealing it.

My best guess is that director Natali and his two co-writers intend for this to be as much a cautionary tale and a meditation on bio-ethics as they want it to be a cross-breed horror/science fiction tale. There are some problems, though. First, their approach is naïve in the extreme; they address questions that have been debated for decades in more enlightened forums. Most of the concepts they attack here are recycled. Issues of this sort have been discussed and debated as far back as when Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein. To an extent, Splice is all about man's hubris and how he copes when his abilities outstrip his morality. Basic questions bubble to the top. How deep does a creator's responsibility run to its creation? What does it mean to have sex with such a creation: incest, infidelity, or something otherwise creepy? If nothing else, Splice provides a unique take on the Elektra Complex.

The movie would work better if the characters came across as organic rather than appendages of a screenplay. There are numerous leaps of logic - instances when the protagonists act in a fashion that only movie characters would. Their cavalier attitude toward leaving Dren to her own devices is inexplicable. She is a unique creation - emotionally fragile with unknown physical limitations (not to mention how much money she could be worth to the right buyer) - yet they leave her alone in a barn. It's almost as if the movie is determined to italicize how incredibly stupid and inept these supposedly brilliant scientists are. They can create life but are unprepared to cope with the result of their creation. Maybe that's a metaphor for modern-day parenting, or maybe I'm reading too much into Natali's underwritten script.

The special effects that bring Dren to life are less than impressive. At best, she looks like something out of an R-rated episode of Star Trek. The breasts would seem to be the actress' own, but everything from the waist down is the product of CGI, and it shows. Based on her work here, it's impossible to assess Delphine Chaneac's aptitude in front of a camera. The same cannot be said of either Adrien Brody or Sarah Polley. Both actors have done exceptional work in the past (he won an Oscar; she has provided equally amazing performances, albeit in smaller productions); this is not their finest hour. One can only hope they were handsomely paid. They're not terrible, but they don't add anything to Splice beyond name recognition than that which could have been provided by a pair of unknowns.

Splice might have been more enjoyable as an unabashed B-movie. The production is watchable, but the experience of sitting through it offers equal parts frustration and satisfaction. It's easy enough to appreciate the movie for its differences while at the same time acknowledging that not all those differences work. Splice is ambitious, which is always preferable to the opposite, but it never delves deeply into the cavalcade of ideas it touches. Instead of taking a real chance, the finale devolves into a generic genre ending (although maybe this is intended to provide an origin story for the Jersey Devil). Splice isn't a disaster and it will probably fool a percentage of its audience into thinking it's saying something new or offering a previously unexplored narrative approach, but neither is the case. The movie contains the embryo of a worthwhile motion picture, but the full potential for development is never fulfilled.

Splice (Canada/France/United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2010-06-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1