Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
How do we account, Splice asks, for the kindred dorkdom of lab-cloistered scientists and monster-movie completists? Are we talking nature or nurture here?
Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are Clive and Elsa, two fetching geneticists whose romantic forays into bioengineering go about as well as expected for a movie that names characters after Bride of Frankenstein actors. Which isn't to say that director Vincenzo Natali and co-writers Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor are old-fashioned. Rather, they seem to strain to be edgy; it's just that they're also preoccupied with heritage.
After combining the DNA of various animals into a pair of enormous, pharmacologically useful slugs, Clive and Elsa are eager to see what they might whip up with some human genes in the mix. Their corporate overseers seem less eager, and you would too after the deliciously horrible scene in which a demonstration goes just wrong enough to shower shareholders with glass and blood.
But Clive and Elsa are ambitious. And they seem to understand each other. "I am not spending the next five years digging through pigshit for enteric proteins," she tells him. "Me neither," he replies, after a considered pause. As it happens, their haste is contagious: Natali supplies a scientists-at-work montage, and before we know it, Clive and Elsa have become the parents of a little baby rodent-bird-amphibian-arthropod girl.
So it's a weird situation, but apparently it's better than pigshit. They name her "Dren," not just because that's "nerd" spelled backward, but also because their lab is called Nucleic Exchange Research and Development. They determine that she "craves high-sucrose foodstuffs," which seems normal, and that she "develops like a fetus outside the womb," which seems less normal, but does present invigorating challenges, both personal and scientific. (Not to mention cinematic: Natali directs Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero's excellent special effects with discretion enough to allow for a performance by little Abigail Chu as the developing Dren.) Then, needing space and privacy to slough off the pretense of professional principles and to delve into parenting issues, they spirit her away to Elsa's conveniently abandoned family farm.
Under increasingly preposterous circumstances, it becomes clear that Clive and Elsa don't understand each other so well after all. As for Dren, well, kids grow up fast, don't they? Soon she's being played by model Delphine Chanéac — all ornery, attention-seeking, bald and attractive, like Sinead O'Connor with a stinging tail and kangaroo legs.
Suffice to say there's a lot going on in Splice. It's not quite the subversive cult-movie romp it might have been, but throwing together transgenderism, incest and bestiality has to count for something. Unfortunately for Natali and company, leaving no trope unturned means not giving any enough consideration. But Brody and Polley are sharp and resourceful actors, undaunted by the confused instincts, Freudian eruptions and karmic consequences hurled at them.
Moving into its final act, Splice seems to leak inspiration, and trudges to a bore of an action climax. Of course this might be fine for a film whose point, at least in part, is, "Well, that was a bad idea." It goes to show: Whether you're working with strands of DNA or strips of film, the power of the splice is its creative potential. Tell yourself there are no mistakes, only choices. No abominations, only fascinations. And while you're at it, tell yourself that a lot of life's mystery is explainable, as the dangerously fertile combination of mad science and bad parenting.