Muddled, flawed genetic engineering horror flick comes to DVD and Blu-Ray this week.
Until its last fifteen minutes, director and co-writer Vincenzo Natali’s Canadian import Splice is a film that tempts you to think more of it than it deserves. It is believably shot and its concept is patiently and clearly established, with scientific jargon as well as character positioning accomplished deftly and with a minimum of prolonged explanation. Like much of the best science fiction, the concept is plausible enough that only a little suspension of disbelief is necessary, and it’s topically relevant to an area of contemporary ongoing debate. Natali won praise for his Byzantine 1997 thriller Cube, and here he’s equipped with two solid leads, Oscar winner Adrien Brody and the underseen Sarah Polley. With such promise, the disappointment that comes from its ultimate retreat into boilerplate horror movie tropes becomes that much more disappointing. There’s an intelligent idea for a film hidden in here, but like its creature’s humanity that promise remains unrealized and fitfully under-developed.
Elsa (Polley) and Clive (Brody) are vaguely hispterish lovers and research scientists working for a big pharmaceutical corporation, developing proteins that will help in the creation of new medications. As scientists, they’ve got a pretty cushy life, with the company funding their “Nucleic Exchange Research and Development” laboratory (the lab’s acronym is a pretty good indication of the film’s idea of humor.) As a couple, they’ve hit a snag: he wants kids, she’d rather have a bigger apartment. At work they’ve already created simple new lifeforms, but when the corporation cuts their research funding in favor of more profitable applications, Elsa decides to take gene-splicing to its next level rather than “sift through pig shit” in search of helpful chemicals. She and Clive fuse human DNA to the gene sequences they’ve already perfected, creating the hybrid that in time Elsa names “Dren.”
Unsettlingly childlike, both in its innocence and fickleness, Dren ages at a rapid rate, needing frequent immersions in water to accommodate its amphibious lungs. Elsa and Clive keep it safe in their lab, later converting a storage closet into a nursery and then moving her to Elsa’s derelict family farm. But the move triggers Elsa’s deep psychological scars, received at the hands of a cruel mother, and those wounds percolate once her own maternal instincts kick in. As Dren matures Elsa assumes her own mother’s parenting flaws, including caprice and almost casual cruelty, that help to alienate Dren even further from human behavior. Meanwhile Clive, indecisive and confused, wrestles with the reality of their creation while fighting a growing attraction to the increasingly sexual Dren (played in her adult form by Delphine Chaneac).
Natali’s script, written with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor, tries to address several levels of story but never manages to reconcile any of them. It squanders time on the mechanics of Elsa and Clive’s relationship that might be better spent explaining Dren’s reactions to the world around her, and devotes long minutes to a set piece involving Clive and Elsa’s other creations that serves no purpose except to put gore upon the screen. The screenplay also suffers from the clumsy fault of assuming the audience understands genetic engineering concepts but lacks basic emotional intuition; in at least two instances a character explains the badly obvious with dialogue, as when Clive moans, “I wish things could go back to the way they were” during a rueful argument with Elsa. Meanwhile Dren grows increasingly frustrated and unstable following a botched seduction of Clive that’s as unnecessarily explicit as it is bizarre. To save their relationship and themselves, Clive and Elsa resolve to end Dren’s life early, picking up the plot and carrying it forward.
Which leads to those final fifteen minutes, which include every plot contrivance you’ve seen in most horror genre exercises as well as a rape that serves primarily to establish the film’s pseudo-twist denouement. Dren turns evil, because horror films need a monster or killer in the snowy, eerily-lit woods, and the couple’s boss and Clive’s brother show up, under the thinnest of pretenses, to serve as tension-building cannon fodder. The rationale for Dren’s increased aggression is simplistic and a bit reductive besides. Genre fans might not mind the plot contortions so much, as they move it into position to serve up the meat-and-potatoes climax. Other audiences, intrigued enough by the cast and concept to give the film a chance, might find themselves annoyed and feel too a little had.
There are any number of horror and science-fiction films that deal with the consequences of genetic manipulation and cloning. Splice reminds you of at least one other, better film when early on the word “gattaca” or something close to it flashes across a display monitor. This film, had it been willing to plunge into its ideas instead of building something ultimately formulaic around them, might have achieved something noteworthy, or least created a successful combination of its two directions. Ultimately, it’s less than the sum of its parts.
- Michael Kabel