At first glance, Splice looks like a stem-cell debate tarted up in monster-movie drag, but this is one seriously demented mutant, a polyglot of themes and ideas struggling among one other for dominance in a hostile environment.
Ever-intriguing actors Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley star as a pair of hipster scientists, named Clive and Elsa in a cheeky allusion to the Frankenstein mythos. Together they head a lab called N.E.R.D. (Nucleic Exchange Research and Development, of course). They labor there to create hybrid animals, in search of a vital enzyme for disease research. Thus far their greatest creations are slug-like blobs called "Fred and Ginger," who meld their tongue thingies in a mating dance that's both gross and oddly poetic. Faced with corporate deadlines, the duo decides to play Twister with DNA, slipping human tissues into their genetic broth, with predictably alarming results. Soon they've given "birth" to a fascinatingly creepy critter who rapidly grows from a small two-legged hopper into a full grown Björk look-alike vamp in a matter of weeks.
Elsa dubs her "Dren" (nerd backwards), and she's a dangerously erratic ingénue, sweet one moment, but with a terrifying reptilian glint behind her blinking, oversized eyes. She displays a dazzling array of traits, including goat-like legs, amphibian gills, wings, and a tail with a lethal stinger. Safety tip for future God-playing geneticists: Try to eschew deadly scorpions in favor of cuddlier, less menacing crawlies.
Splice gets progressively stranger as Dren evolves, with the creature and the film hitting an uncomfortable puberty, where ungainly limbs begin to flail. As soon as our researchers start clothing their experiment in a baby doll dress, giving her crayons and hiding her in a barn, we can predict the outcome, if not the incidents along the way. As the lovers bicker over the fate of their dangerous "offspring," the film almost morphs into a relationship drama and then veers toward parody.
While the most obvious comparison is to the '90s fave Species, Splice more closely resembles Orphan, which had similar kinky oedipal issues and a wild, anything-goes attitude. The film relies on squirmy, slime-based creep-outs over pure terror, which will be a letdown to gorehounds. The leads work over time to make something of their roles, even as the characters swerve wildly between clever and incredibly stupid. Elsa is the true monster, a curious Eve who keeps biting the forbidden apple, driven by family demons only hinted at. There isn't time to go deeper, as development is sacrificed for shocks, and director Vincenzo Natali rushes through the third act as if he's late for an appointment, losing the tone in the process. This film's creators can't quite get the unruly genie back into the bottle, and while they haven't quite created a monster, they have made one dazzling mutant, too weird and fragile to survive for long.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].