July 26, 2010 Leave a comment
You probably don’t know Vincenzo Natali by name, but you might know his superb 1997 sci-fi cult hit Cube. After two relatively obscure follow-ups – Cypher and Nowhere – Natali returns with what is his first definitive high-budget genre romp, in Splice. Though there are signs in the third act that Natali may have deigned to the wham-bang temptations of a $30m budget (Cube cost $350k, Cypher cost $7.5m), a good amount of that thing money can’t buy – intellect – shines through in this thoughtful, disturbing thriller.
Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are two brainiac genetic engineers who have risen to fame by splicing together the DNA of numerous animals to create a whole new hybrid. However, when their next plan – to splice human DNA into the mix – is met with reluctance from their financial backers, Clive and Elsa decide to go it alone, covertly performing the splice. However, the result – a fast-growing humanoid with animalistic properties, which they name Dren (Delphine Chaneac) – winds up giving the pair far more than they bargained for. Not only must they keep Dren secret from the backers and also other scientists, but they must attempt to contain the unstable, unpredictable nature of a creature created through “playing God”..
It is the ethical debate stemming from the precociousness of science that makes Splice so interesting despite its many flaws. Though it is easy to initially view Clive and Elsa’s behaviour as either disturbing curiosity or pampered indulgence, Natali’s script is sure to balance the argument well, for this splicing method has profound medical implications; it can potentially provide cure or relief for numerous illnesses, such as Parkinson’s and cancer. Natali’s insistence to engage with both sides of the coin – the arrogance of the scientists against the good they may do – is refreshing.
Equally invigorating is his depiction of the scientists themselves; far from the bespectacled, socially inept types we’re used to, Clive and Elsa are a pretty cool pair, and – at least initially – quite likeable. Splice might just be the first time in recent memory in which a scientist has ever worn a black leather jacket on screen and actually looked the part. In the stead of Natali’s other works, Splice also has a firm finger on the pulse of its characters, aptly conveying the obsessive sense of curiosity that drives the pair, even when they know that what they’re doing is, at best, rather questionable, and at all times absolutely dangerous. Similarly palpable are their more innate emotions, particularly as it pertains to parenthood and, for Elsa, that hard-wired mothering instinct, making for some fairly uncomfortable tension later on.
Still, as in Cube, Natali is not afraid to have fun amid all the bleakness, and in many ways his depiction of Dren is more reminiscent of E.T. than a Xenomorph. Dren is a robust, oddly beautiful, and often quite cute creature who has a sweet tooth and is simply, tragically trying to understand a world she was never meant for. Interspersed with the different treatments of her “parents” – for Clive tries to regard her strictly as a “specimen”, while Elsa very quickly develops a maternal attachment – Dren is in many ways the suffering child caught between warring parents, and we feel sorry for her. Elsa’s sudden assertion to maternal duty does seem a tad rushed, and Polley’s performance is mildly histrionic, but the ingredients for the most part mix well.
Somewhat ironically given the story’s content, sex is integral to the Splice, driving each principal character, and in many ways, serving them their worst desserts. From that awkward “primal scene” moment – in which Dren sees Clive and Elsa having sex – the film follows along a path that armchair psychologists will easily interpret as Oedipal, and while it ultimately teeters on the brink of being unintentionally funny, it is laudable in its go-for-broke bravery.
The third reel is easily the weakest segment, though, devolving rather lazily into a more generic Jeepers Creepers-esque survival scenario, where events rely heavily on coincidence and the considerable stupidity of the film’s remaining characters. The tail-end, however, delivers a neat little twist, leaving unsettling thoughts to percolate in the mind, and somewhat redeeming the fairly redundant last half hour.
Splice is a bit of a mess, but it is an ambitious, well-shot and mostly well-acted effort that engages actively with an enticing ethical issue, while also being a tight psychological character study. If the third act were better formed, this might have replicated the cult status of Natali’s debut feature.