Film Review: Splice

More than a decade in the making, Vincenzo ('Cube') Natali’s provocative sci-fi/horror tale never quite lives up to the spectacular creepiness of its premise.

In the not-too-distant future, über-geek lovers Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Cast (Sarah Polley), both brilliant genetic engineers, have heedlessly hitched their combined talents for manipulating life’s raw material to the star of multinational corporation Newstead Pharma. Yes, they’ve sold out to the man, but they’re sufficiently naïve to imagine they can get away with conducting their own little project on the company dime, boldly tinkering with what man should leave alone and creating a human/who-knows-what hybrid.

As has been the case since impetuous Victor Frankenstein stitched together a crazy quilt of human body parts and imbued them with unnatural life, the result—which Elsa dubs Dren (yes, that’s “nerd” backwards, NERD also being the acronym of the Nucleic Exchange, Research and Development project for which Clive and Elsa work)—at first appears a thing of infinite wonder, a cute little monster that resembles a mutant prairie dog crossed with The Shaggs’ unsettling imaginary pal Foot Foot. Dren is of a piece with the cute/creepy Japanese creature models Elsa and Clyde collect, except that she quickly grows into an eerie, unsettlingly sentient humanoid (Delphine Chanéac) buffeted by unruly desires she's fully capable of pursuing.

At its heart, Vincenzo Natali’s Splice is one in a long line of horror tales about the monstrosity of parenthood, motherhood in particular: It’s no coincidence that Elsa, the traumatized product of mad, bad mothering, shudders at the idea of bearing her own biological children but bonds ferociously with the artificially conceived Dren. Elsa and Clive’s, shall we say, complicated relationship with their unnatural offspring is both grotesquely funny and subtly unnerving until it becomes flat-out horrifying.

But despite the film’s overripe psychological underpinnings (to say more would spoil some of the plot’s more baroque twists) and frank debt to Frankenstein, which starts with the main characters’ names (Colin Clive played Dr. Frankenstein in the classic 1931 film, while Elsa Lanchester was his monster’s bride in the sequel), Splice is ultimately all sexed up with no place to go. There's an awful lot of wheel-spinning between the set-up and the admirably restrained climax, and it's hard not to wish that the movie's middle were as compelling as its beginning and its end.