In the cut

Pub date June 1, 2010
SectionFilm Features

FILM "If we don’t use human DNA now, someone else will," declares Elsa (Sarah Polley), the brash young genetic scientist bent on defying the orders of her benign corporate benefactors in Vincenzo Natali’s pseudo-cautionary hybrid love child, Splice. From that moment on, it’s pretty clear that any ethical conundrums the movie raises aren’t really worthy of debate: what Elsa wants to do in the name of scientific progress — splice human DNA into gooey muscle masses to provide said corporation with proteins for gene therapy — is, you know, deranged.

A hipster Dr. Frankenstein with mommy issues, Elsa bucks both corporate policy and sound moral judgment and does it anyway, much to the horror of her husband and fellow hotshot research scientist, Clive (Adrien Brody). (His name is a sideways reference to Mary Shelley’s titular mad scientist, played by Colin Clive in 1931’s Frankenstein; hers recalls 1935’s notoriously electro-coiffed Bride of Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester.) But the potential scientific discoveries prove too seductive even for Clive, who reluctantly plays Elsa’s sad-eyed Igor. After all, these are the type of science weirdos who can gaze upon genetically engineered mounds of unarticulated, writhing flesh and coo, "She’s perfectly formed!" Um, yeaahh.

Elsa’s genetic tinkering soon results in the dramatic birth of something akin to a homicidal fetal chick crossed with a skinned bunny. Clive is horrified by this affront to nature and suggests killing it, but Elsa wants to study its life cycle for posterity. It grows at an alarming rate, and when human characteristics become apparent, Elsa clings to it with the instinctual vigor of a tigress protecting her cub. She gives her female laboratory spawn the name "Dren" ("Nerd" backward, after the acronym for their research facility) and outfits her in oddly anachronistic Holly Hobbie-style dresses. Clive remains largely unconvinced. "None of her animal components have predatory characteristics," Elsa assures him. "Well, there is the human element," he quips.

In a matter of days, Dren develops from a shy child into a precocious teen (French newcomer Delphine Chanéac) with a typically adolescent itch to rebel. The mute, atavistic Dren is like a gorgeous autistic Minotaur, bounding around on incredibly powerful gazelle-like legs while clinging to her stuffed teddy bears and batting her doe eyes in wonder, existential confusion, and (soon enough) quizzical animal lust.

When Elsa and Clive are forced to hide Dren at Elsa’s abandoned family farmhouse to escape detection from prying corporate eyes, Splice evolves into another kind of hybrid: a genetically engineered Scenes from a Marriage (1973) crossed with the DNA of The Omen (1976) and grafted onto the most very special My So-Called Life episode ever. Eventually the movie gets downright lascivious — a particularly cringe-inducing plot twist comes to mind — but a few small moments toy with the transcendent, like Dren’s discovery of her wings on a snow-laden rooftop. Both Brody and Polley seem to be gamely slumming, and their casting does add an aura of respectability to the proceedings. But make no mistake. Splice‘s genetic imprint is pure genre-pulp sleaze and cheese.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Splice may be a ludicrous, cut-rate exercise in Brood-era David Cronenberg — Natali has clearly orchestrated an homage to his fellow Canadian’s enduring obsession with body horror — but it’s a damned entertaining one. It’s also a curious entry considering Natali’s earlier efforts, notably 1997’s relatively austere exercise in Kubrickian Big Think sci-fi nuance, Cube. The only Kubrick evidenced in Splice comes in the form of Clive’s large collection of vinyl hipster toys.

Perhaps this about-face fits somewhere comfortably between Cube and Natali’s rumored next project: a remake of Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing (1982). Splice in some Craven and pretty soon Natali’s DNA will be such a bouillabaisse of sci-fi horror tropes he’ll give his Frankenstein-aping heroine Elsa a run for her money.

SPLICE opens Fri/4 in Bay Area theaters.