© 2010 Ray Wong
It's almost impossible to watch Vincenzo Natali's new film, Splice, without thinking of Frankenstein or David Cronenberg. Add a dash of moral ambiguity and sexual perversion, we've got a sci-fi thriller-horror that touches on the absurd.
Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are brilliant biotech scientists (and lovers) who are on the verge of cracking the genetic taboo of creating new species, by splicing the DNAs of various animals together. They've successfully created a new species with the births of two organisms, Fred and Ginger, who are more like fleshy blobs than cuddly pets.
Clive and Elsa want to take their research one step further, by introducing human DNA. They hope to find a combination that would produce a collection of proteins and biochemical materials that would cure a whole slew of diseases. However, the the corporation sponsoring their efforts is growing impatient and also nervous about the legality and problems with human DNA splicing, and forces the scientists to go forward with phase two instead. Dejected, Clive and Elsa secretly go ahead with their experiments and successfully create a new creature, which they call Dren.
When Dren shows signs of aggressive behaviors -- and it becomes more and more difficult to keep her a secret at the labs -- Clive becomes very uncomfortable and wants to kill the creature and terminate their experiment. But something stirs Elsa's maternal instinct and she convinces Clive to continue, and move Dren to her mother's old house. As Dren grows into an intelligent humanoid with unique attributes and abilities, Clive and Elsa find themselves strangely and inappropriately attached to the creature, despite their scientific approaches and ethics.
Adrien Brody (Predator) looks the part as the smart scientist, or at least during the first half of the movie. Later, though, it seems like his intelligence has disappeared while his character starts to make one bad judgment after another. Brody's quiet performance is adequate but needs some fine tuning -- and his character is too passive to really hook us. Sarah Polley (Dawn of the Dead) fares better as the complicated Elsa. She's intense, aggressive (we all know who wears the pants in that household), and at times annoying (not her fault -- her character can be irritating). Polley is able to go deep and provide us with a multidimensional portrayal of the character.
Newcomer Delphine Chanéac is excellent as Dren, the creature. Even though her face and body have been digitally altered, it's clear that she has a unique face and beauty that are both captivating and strange. Her body language is also great for the role, which calls for extraordinary physicality and a fearless performance.
Brandon McGibbon (Saw V) plays Clive's brother and lab associate with a rather unimpressive one-noteness. Simona Maicanescu (Dante 01) plays the corporate exec with appropriate chill. David Hewlett (Stargate Atlantis) is serviceable as the agitated, clueless boss. And Abigail Chu (The Latest Buzz) gives an interesting performance as Dren as a child.
Written by Vincenzo Natali (Cube) and Antoinette Terry Bryant, the screenplay definitely has the elements of classic monster movies such as Frankenstein. It asks the age-old moral question about science: Just because you can, does it mean you should? Clive and Elsa have crossed a lot of lines, and one mistake begets another until things get completely out of hand. Also, Natali and Bryant give the characters moral ambiguities and backgrounds (Elsa survived an abusive childhood with her mother; who knows what lurked in Clive's past?) But they are both seriously flawed people; smart people who make dumb mistakes.
What sets this creature/monster film apart from others is the themes that range from parenthood to sexuality. The story takes a strange and perverted turn as Clive and Elsa find themselves emotionally entangled with Dren. Elsa, once feeling maternal and loving toward Dren, becomes increasingly angry, cold, and mean (just like her mother did to her). Elsa goes to some very dark places when trying to deal with Dren. Clive, on the other hand, develops an odd attraction to the creature, even though he knows he shouldn't. Both characters eventually cross their respective forbidden lines.
I find the themes and the plot interesting and twisted, but the writers did a good job providing the background and motivation, so the story doesn't feel forced or out of the left field. Still, there are elements that make us ponder if the filmmakers have gone too far, or if they're only doing it for shock value. Also, there are a few scenes that rouse unintentional laughters -- possibly because they are so absurd.
Natali's direction is skilled and suspenseful. The lighting is wonderful and he's helped created many truly beautiful and haunting images. He also keeps the story simple and streamlined, with a small cast and almost no subplot. Some may see that as a detriment; I think it keeps the focus on the relationships between these three characters.
Splice is a unique movie that crosses genres: horror, thriller, science-fiction and drama. It explores intriguing and uncomfortable territories, and dare to ask questions we may not know the answers to. It's also entertaining, interesting, and at times horrific (as it should). It's certainly not perfect, but I can see Vincenzo Natali has put a lot of thoughts in this -- he didn't simply spliced together a run-of-the-mill monster film.
Stars: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chanéac, Brandon McGibbon, Simona Maicanescu, David Hewlett, Abigail Chu
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Writers: Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing elements including strong sexuality, nudity, violence, language
Running Time: 104 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 7.2 out of 10