Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Vincenzo Natali, director and co-script w/Antoinette Terry Bryant, Doug Taylor
Starring: Adrien Brody (Clive), Sarah Polley (Elsa), David Hewlett (Barlow), Amanda Brugel (Melinda Finch), Delphine Chaneac (Dren)
Frankenstein is grafted onto Oedipus in Vincenzo Natali’s mythic thriller Splice. Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are brilliantly typecast as the ultimate nerd couple, Clive and Elsa, who are genetic engineers by day and lovers by night. They’re employed by a pharmaceutical company to create hybrids that could generate lucrative medical discoveries.
As the film begins, time is running out on the golden duo’s project. Clive and Elsa are pure scientists, not interested in profits. Luckily, they’ve created a couple of movable—yes, they’re alive!—blobs, dubbed Fred and Ginger. They hope that will make the soulless corporate types—Barlow and Melinda Finch—back off while pure research can be done.
As if the company isn’t creating enough concerns, Clive and Elsa are also struggling with the question of BABY. Should they have one? Clive thinks “yes” but Elsa has a dark past and is doubtful.
Then, everything changes. Clive and Elsa stumble onto a big discovery. Defying instructions from Barlow and Fitch, they try to create another living creature, one more highly evolved than Fred and Ginger, and inadvertently make something really new. This creature, whose DNA has been compromised by feeding on Elsa’s bloody finger while being formed, emerges cat-like and wiry.
Elsa is intrigued while Clive is repulsed—initially. Soon the rapidly growing creature attracts both of them—and the feeling is mutual. Their “baby” Dren—nerd backwards—is shepherded off, in secret, to Elsa’s old gothic home in the country before the company can find out what is happening.
Meanwhile—and the story really has that gothic Victoriana “meanwhile” sensibility wired in its narrative DNA—Fred and Ginger kill each other spectacularly at a big media conference, making Barlow and Fitch livid—and their investors apoplectic. Elsa and Clive are told to come up with a discovery fast or they’ll be shut out of their own lab.
Meanwhile—yup!—BABY Dren is growing up, falling in love with Dad. And feeling pretty problematic towards Mom. Things are getting gloomier in Elsa’s Old Dark House. Dren is a brilliant, extraordinarily strong and gifted creature. But she’s an alien even to her “parents.”
And then, one night, things go completely out of control…
Splice is a well-crafted film by sci-fi auteur Natali, who achieved his early success with another imaginative thriller Cube, which was a rare Canadian genre hit (especially in France, the country that helped to co-finance this film.) The acting is fine, the story intriguing and the special effects, brilliant.
But—and you knew there was a but…Splice is a muddled film. There’s not enough blood and gore to make it a genuinely shocking contemporary horror film. Worse, the character driven story isn’t strong enough: there’s no chemistry developed between Brody and Polley. Natali’s casting is fine but we don’t know enough about the twosome to care about their fate.
Splice is smart and genuinely nerdy. I loved it that Clive is named after Colin Clive, the actor who played Frankenstein in the 1930s James Whale classics and Elsa is, of course, Ms. Lanchester, the famous Bride of Frankenstein (and, in real life, Mrs. Charles Laughton.)
The film has a certain charm—enough to persuade Warner Brothers to place it in 3000 cinemas this weekend. Who knows? Maybe Natali has created another Canadian genre piece that will achieve international success. I hope so—but I can’t honestly urge people to see this intriguing but confused film this weekend.