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Movie Review: Splice

June 4, 2010
By

photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

Given the current spate of advances in genetic engineering, Splice seems eerily prescient.  After all, we have already seen the rapid evolution of cloning. Supermarkets now carry cloned produce, and mammals are routinely and successfully cloned as well.  Is it really unreasonable to assume we will see a human-animal hybrid in our lifetime? Who’s to say one doesn’t already exist?

It is hard to believe that director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) first conceived the idea for Splice almost 15 years ago, all because he was intrigued by the shocking image of the Vacanti mouse, that little white mouse that had a human ear growing out of its back.  The result is this chilling sci-fi/horror hybrid that  is teeming with the ethical and moral implications of genetic research.

Elsa (Sarah Polley, The Sweet Hereafter) and Clive (Adrien Brody, The Pianist) are gifted young genetic bio-engineers, who have successfully spliced the genetic material of different animals into a hybrid.  A pharmaceutical company has sponsored them, in the hopes of developing new medications.

Elsa is chomping at the bit to add a little human DNA to the next experiment, but the company shoots her down, deeming it too risky, not to mention illegal.

Elsa then convinces Clive that they should continue their experiments in secret, just to see if they can really can do it.  After all, the fetus probably won’t survive anyway. She throws him a little bone, pointing out that the hybrid could lead to advances in diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but it is clear that it is all ego-driven on Elsa’s part.  ”What’s the worst that could happen?” she asks.

The resulting creature is Dren (nerd spelled backward), who boasts some human characteristics, but has a tail and kangaroo/bird-like legs. It becomes quickly apparent that Dren is growing at an accelerated rate, something that Elsa and Clive didn’t anticipate.

Elsa becomes excited by the prospect of studying the life cycle of their creation. She convinces Clive to let Dren live, and her maternal instincts are triggered by the infant.  Elsa begins caring for Dren as though she is human; dressing her in clothes, speaking to her as you would a child.

It’s a very unsettling dynamic, and our first glimpse of Dren wearing a toddler’s dress is visually striking, and haunting.  As Dren rapidly grows up, Clive and Elsa have to come to grips with the fact that they cannot control their creation, and that she isn’t quite as human as she appears.

Young Dren. photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

But what are they morally bound to do with her?  They created her, raised her, and kept her hidden from the world. Now  she is uncontrollable, dangerous and is going through puberty on steroids.  It’s an interesting conundrum, one that plays out with some truly shocking moments, and Natali (to his credit) didn’t sanitize his vision for mainstream audiences.  I really didn’t think the movie would actually go some places that it does.

Some welcome moments of intentional camp help lighten the heavy tone and message of the film. Astute film fans will notice some clever references to the  Frankenstein franchise.

The movie looks great.  Natali separates the first and second halves of the film with color and tone.  The first half takes part in the clinical setting.  The characters wear crisp white lab coats, and the rooms are bathed in blues, greens and teals to illuminate a sterile environment.

The second half, Dren has outgrown her hidden room at the clinic facility, and is moved to Elsa’s childhood farm.  Here, the cinematographer switches to grays and muted tones, conveying a Gothic mood.

Dren is rendered extremely well.   This movie would have been relegated to complete junk if the effects looked bad, but fortunately, Dren is seamlessly brought to life.  Natali opted to use French actress Delphine Chanéac  for the adult Dren and she is marvelous.  Without uttering one word of dialogue, she conveys every emotion that Dren experiences, using her body, eyes and facial expressions.  Dren communicates to Clive and Elsa by using a series of clicks and chirping noises.  Chanéac actually came up with Dren’s “language” on her own.

For the younger version of Dren, Natali wisely chose to use a real actress enhanced with CGI.  The movie works because you are able to connect to and feel for Dren, something that would have been lost had a green screen been employed for all Dren’s scenes.

Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody are perfectly cast, and elevate the movie far above your typical genre fare.  They lend a real credibility to the whole movie.  What a treat to have them here in a genre film.

I can’t wait to see what Natali has up his sleeve next. Splice is funny, frightening, and shocking all at once.  It’s a disturbing commentary on where science is heading, and it is not easily shaken off once you leave the theater.

Rating 4/5

For more on Splice, check out my interview with director Vincenzo Natali, published in its entirety on the The Flickcast.

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