Half psychological thriller and half horror film, Splice, which stars Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, is a surprisingly smart film that explores issues surrounding bio-ethics, abortion, and parenthood through a modern-day Frankenstein story.
The film, which opens today, focuses on Clive (Brody) and Elsa (Polley), two brilliant geneticists who have already spliced DNA to create two worm-like creatures called Fred and Ginger. Their goal is to create a human/animal hybrid whose proteins could be used to cure diseases. When they realize their lab is going to be shut down, they rush the project and create Dren (Delphine Chanéac), a part-human creature with wings, bird-like legs, and a tail. Clive and Elsa, who are romantically involved but have no children, decide to raise Dren in secret, but things go awry as she rapidly grows from a baby to a rebellious teen monster.
Critics say Splice is a fascinating film with great special effects. (The lone dissenter: The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday, who called it "thoroughly repulsive.") It combines elements of The Fly, Alien, and various David Lynch films, but still feels original. Brody, Polley, and Chanéac's performances are said to be excellent, and though the film unravels in the last 30 minutes with a cliche chase scene, overall, it's a "thriving, disturbing, thoughtful mutant of a movie."
Below, the reviews:
One of the great though infrequent pleasures of a movie critic's life is discovering good movies that the studios don't know what to do with. Whether the production turns out to be a classic ("M*A*S*H", "The Iron Giant," "Three Kings") or simply a small, distinctive film that's full of surprises ("Out of Sight," "Pretty Poison," the original "Village of the Damned"), the symptoms are always similar. The studio schedules very few advance screenings, or sometimes none, and slaps together a marketing campaign that gives only a vague sense of the content. Such is the case with "Splice," a sci-fi horror flick that falls into the latter category of small and distinctive. It's no classic, and I don't want to oversell it. You'll recognize extensive borrowings from such pop landmarks as "Jurassic Park" and "Rosemary's Baby," and the looming presence of the Frankenstein/Prometheus myth. But you'll have a lovely, scary time along the way.
Ms. Chanéac's performance can't be judged in conventional terms, since her work is amplified by elegant special effects, and her powerful presence depends in part on dreamlike close-ups that may have been inspired by the ecstatic look on Maria Falconetti's face in the silent classic "The Passion of Joan of Arc." (Or by Jean Seberg in "Breathless.") Mr. Brody and Ms. Polley present no such problem, though. They're both superb in complementary ways. Clive's edgy intelligence gives the story a solid foundation, while Elsa's neediness-along with her searching mind-lifts her mother-daughter relationship with Dren into the realm of dulcet madness.
Played to novelty perfection by French actress Delphine Chanéac, Dren (another wink - that's ''nerd'' backward) is everything amazing and unholy about the human ability to mess with creation. The outstanding creature effects by Howard Berger only get more astonishing as Splice splits into an eerie horror picture, then divides again into something out of Rosemary's Baby.
The clever script and grounded performances - especially by Polley - convincingly sell the "good idea at the time" hubris of geniuses making horrible decisions. Polley's Elsa is a multilayered person balancing an aversion to motherhood with deep-seated maternal yearnings. Perhaps the film's most interesting and nerve-jangling component is the evolving dynamic among the childless couple and their experiment-pet-baby-monster. The authenticity of that triangle is sure to generate some of the most uncomfortable laughter you'll hear at a movie this year.
Elsa is one of those women who don't want to have babies - it would overcrowd their apartment, etc. - which in the emotional parlance of mainstream moviedom makes her ripe for punishment; it gives us leeway not to worry too much about her fate if and when Dren should develop, say, talons and a stinger. But for a reluctant novice Elsa takes to parenting with the kind of obnoxious zeal recognizable to anyone who has ever been in a new mother's group. And because Dren ages rapidly, we're able to watch Elsa cycle through all the stages of parenthood, including the ugly teen years.
Watching Dren develop - from newt to child to va-va-va-voom adult - you understand why "Splice" attracted the support of the director Guillermo del Toro, one of its seven executive producers. Mr. Natali, whose earlier films include "Cube," hasn't reinvented the horror genre. But with "Splice" he has done the next best thing with an intelligent movie that, in between its small boos and an occasional hair-raising jolt, explores chewy issues like bioethics, abortion, corporate-sponsored science, commitment problems between lovers and even Freudian-worthy family dynamics. The shivers might often outweigh the scares, and Mr. Natali loses his way in the last half-hour. Yet working with actors who make you care and a neo-Frankenstein creation that touchingly does, too, he has become one of the genre's new great fright hopes.
Any resemblance to the actual experience of parenting is, of course, not at all coincidental. Shooting with a cool reserve and a steely-blue color palette, Natali keeps the film unsettling by using icky creature effects, but just as often by offering up grotesque caricatures of real-life parenting discomforts, from the exhaustion to the collapse of privacy to the difficulty of instilling a moral code in an offspring that often seems alien. The film keeps a sometimes too-clinical distance but pushes buttons from afar, including a final act that turns into a series of outrages bound to upset audiences who might have stumbled in expecting the usual monster-of-the-week horror movie instead of this thriving, disturbing, thoughtful mutant of a movie.
The movie's best instincts are all parental. Elsa had a complicated relationship with her own mother; and Polley smartly, quietly taps into the exasperation of becoming someone you don't like, be it the woman who raised you or the women whose careers are their families. Indeed, while Clive goes to work, Elsa stays home with Dren, who, much to Elsa's disgust, is a daddy's girl. Mom is forced to be the disciplinarian, confiscating pets and raising her voice.
Brody and Polley are smart actors, and the director, Vincenzo Natali, is smart, too; do you remember his "Cube" (1997), with subjects trapped in a nightmarish experimental maze? This film, written by Natali with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Douglas Taylor, has the beginnings of a lot of ideas, including the love that observably exists between humans and some animals. It questions what "human" means, and suggests it's defined more by mind than body. It opens the controversy over the claims of some corporations to patent the genes of life. It deals with the divide between hard science and marketable science.
Horror movies have always been defensible for offering either catharsis or camp value. "Splice" boasts neither, even though a scene of a bunch of stockholders getting splattered with mutant guts could have qualified as a kitsch classic. Instead, "Splice" joins Warner Bros.' similar offering from this time last year, "Orphan," as a singularly cynical enterprise, exploiting our anxieties about reproduction, parenthood, control and betrayal while engaging in the crudest forms of sensationalism. (The movie contains not one, but two scenes of interspecies sex, each with its own incestuous overtones.) It's difficult to know who the filmmakers hold in more contempt in this goopy, gory, grotesque exercise: the characters or the audience. Either way you slice or dice it, you get the same result: Yuck.
Mad science meets motherhood in "Splice," a slice of pulp storytelling in which Dr. Frankenstein is replaced by a pair of lovers too hip for lab coats. An odd choice for Sundance even in the midnight slot, the pic falls well within the genre mainstream and should find more receptive crowds at the multiplex than in Park City...
Writer-director Vincenzo Natali takes his tale in some truly icky directions, not quite making it into Cronenbergland but going far enough to elicit solid 'ewww' laughs from the crowd. He could have shot for camp-cult DVD shelf life by pushing the story's psychological and sexual elements further, but the action direction he goes instead should satisfy the Friday-night crowd without alienating too many viewers.
With seamless special effects, director Vincenzo Natali creates a believable hybrid creature that alternately elicits fear, revulsion and sympathy. But when the creature matures into a bald, dancing teenager with hormones in overdrive, the film devolves into a silly fright-fest with a predictable chase scene conveniently set at a remote farmhouse.
There are plenty of unintentional laughs as the film's tone morphs as much as the monster at its center. But then switching gears from bio-thriller to steamy sex drama to gruesome horror flick is bound to produce some blowback, as well as an implied sequel.