“Splice” takes at look at the world of genetic manipulation, not through the eyes of science, but through the mechanics of a cheesy, easily winded horror film. Walking boldly in the mighty footsteps of David Cronenberg, “Splice” is aching to creep out the room with its symphony of goopy creatures and psychosexual situations, but the film is perhaps too timid and verbose to truly lunge forward and gleefully disturb.
Scientists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are marching into the future with their ambitious DNA splicing efforts, looking for glory as they toy with nature to capture big pharmaceutical bucks. While their labor has resulted in baby steps toward major scientific breakthroughs, Elsa demands more, pushing her latest cocktail of genes to term. The result is a creature named Dren (played by both Abigail Chu and Delphine Chaneac), a seemingly innocent monster that Elsa treats as a child, helping it through its accelerated development cycle. At first hopeful for the potential scientific discoveries it holds, Elsa soon grows protective of the curious creature, while Clive remains unsure about what his partner is planning to do with Dren. Speeding toward maturity, the monster develops awareness, leading to unforeseen violent and seductive situations for the brilliant duo.
“Splice” marks somewhat of a return to the spotlight for director Vincenzo Natali, who achieved cult fame with his crafty 1997 thriller “Cube,” only to chase the breakthrough with a series of little seen endeavors that lacked his genre ingenuity. “Splice” places the filmmaker back on firm filmmaking ground, assembling a story of horrific creation brought about by two maniacal scientists -- it’s a faint whiff of “Frankenstein” played out against today’s brazen leaps in medical advancements, as the chosen few drill further into the unknown to better the world and pad their bank accounts; however, “Splice” is not a cautionary tale on the dangers of greedy scientific experimentation: it’s a monster movie, and a faintly derivative one at that.
Dutifully, Natali and his team of screenwriters marinade the script with lab coat jargon, deploying verbal gymnastics implemented here to create a sense of hard science -- a trident of realism plunged into the middle of a ghoulish cartoon. The tongue-twisting dialogue is tricky and rarely believable in the hands of Polley and Brody, who have the unfortunate task of merging the reality of creation with Natali’s woeful melodrama. The script never lets up, producing an anemic line for every twitch of behavior, wasting time underlining the obvious when the lurid visuals often speak louder than words. It creates a shallow pool of tension, deflating the unknown through suffocating amounts of exposition.
If you make a valiant attempt to push out the constant yammering, you’ll find some merit to “Splice” worth a view. The creature work from gore wizards Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger is top notch, bringing Dren to life with captivating detail (enchanced further through some crafty CGI), securing the revulsion and allure of this misfit of science. Chaneac takes the character further as Dren ages, growing from a fish-eyed, poison-tailed demon to an unaware temptress, prowling around the frame, struggling with her adolescent curiosity. It’s a pronounced performance of tics, yet the actress locates some emotional clarity within Dren, making the creature more conflicted and impassioned. Also to Chaneac’s benefit? She doesn’t speak, making Dren’s scenes of discovery an unexpected godsend.
“Splice” enjoys flinging the goo and blasting the blood, but its actual purpose is purely sexual. In his early work, David Cronenberg explored the lustful nature of mutated flesh, delighting in diverse viewer reaction to an array of slimy vaginal-like openings and pulsating wounds. “Splice” traces along the same lines, using Dren as a carnal fixation that divides Clive and Elsa, leading to more than a few scenes of pure absurdity, possibly even camp. It’s impossible to buy the tight-pants reaction to Dren when the rest of the film is so robotic. The more Natali pushes the sexual nature of the material, the sillier the film becomes.
Not content to leave the film with a light sense of disease, Natali pushes matters into groan-inducing, gender-flipping horror poetry for the finale, grinding the film into the ground with a shameless snap of sexual violence. The intent is to level the audience with a “Twilight Zone” via Zalman King-style twist of irony, but it succeeds more as a lasting repellent, flushing away all the technical achievements and spooky looks to achieve an irksome, asinine moment of diluted shock value.