There are moments in Splice, the latest film from Vincenzo Natali (Cube), when it would seem that the film is on the verge of sci-fi greatness.
Unfortunately, these "moments" equal out to only about 15-20 minutes of the film's 104-minute run time. In the remainder of the film's 80+ minutes, it seems as if Natali and his trio of writers can't quite decide what they want the film to be and, unfortunately, a film that flirts with greatness far too often settles for B-movie mediocrity as we dabble in sci-fi, horror, horror comedy and a reverential homage to old school monster flicks.
In Splice, Clive (Oscar winner Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Oscar nominee Sarah Polley) are biochemists and lovers whose successful splicing of various life forms has made them the current darlings of the scientific world as they adorn the cover of Wired magazine and contemplate their ever increasing professional success. When they successful splice together two slug-looking creatures affectionately named Fred and Ginger, the giant (ie, greedy) pharmaceutical firm funding their research celebrates and plots to isolate an elusive gene deemed central to healing numerous diseases.
Clive and Elsa, on the other hand, are wanting to take their splicing even further and, unsurprisingly, into a more human arena. When the pharmaceutical firm nixes their plans, the two secretly set out to see just how far they can go by creating a half-human, half-animal creature in their private lab.
Before long, the two are violating virtually every ethic of science by unnaturally bonding with their creature, who becomes known as Dren (Nerd backwards, of course).
Can anyone else already tell this ain't going to be pretty?
Much to their surprise, Dren ages quickly and before long adopts an increasingly disturbing number of physical, emotional and intellectual characteristics that often mirror those of her creators. Given the questionable ethics, unresolved childhoods and various other issues plaguing her creators, it almost goes without question that Dren is going to have a few issues of her own.
Splice works best in the early going, when it appears that Natali is turning the film into a psychological/sci-fi thriller in which the development of Dren is presented parallel to the substantial changes going on within Elsa, who had previously sworn off children but who now seems to have become parent and guardian to this Pandora-like creature while Clive becomes resentful of Elsa's suddenly divided attention.
Had Splice continued down this rather warped path, it seems likely that the film would have bordered on greatness. In the film's early stages, Sarah Polley was hypnotic as a young woman first driven by her own narcissistic needs then, suddenly, by a raging maternal instinct towards her creation (played by Delphine Chaneac as a teen/young adult). These scenes are so mesmerizing because they emphasize, with tremendous sympathy, the human within the inhumane.
How much you embrace Splice will depend almost entirely upon how much you embrace the path that Natali follows as Dren begins to mature and what has been adorable becomes increasingly creepy. Dren's unique characteristics become threatening, her half-human, half-animal intentions become both seductive and primal and, in the end, it becomes clear to both Clive and Elsa that they must find a way to return back from the line they have crossed in creating and nurturing Dren.
Before long, everything that was so captivating and awe-inducing early in the film becomes wrapped up in dark humor, often laugh out loud humor, and it will be up to you to decide just how much of the humor is actually intentional on the part of the filmmaker. In an effort to preserve their experiment, Clive and Elsa move Dren to an abandoned farmhouse, Elsa's childhood home, a place of traumatic memories and a potentially traumatic present.
Again, is there any doubt where this is going?
Actually, to a certain degree, there is a doubt. While certain aspects of how Splice climaxes feel remarkably predictable, there are subtle twists and turns that add to the film's lasting creepiness that may very well stay with you long after the closing credits.
There are those of you, undoubtedly, who will look for and find a subtle genius inside Splice, a daring sort of filmmaking that begs for viewing and benefits from having the notable talents of both Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody in what amount to B-movie roles with a bit of substance.
There are others of you, I'd venture to say the majority, who will not embrace Splice, a film that detours from potential greatness for the sake of a few dark laughs and modestly chilling thrills.
The truth of Splice is somewhere in the middle, neither a cinematic masterpiece of science fiction nor the cinematic travesty that it seems to be as the closing credits are scrolling along. Hours after the closing credits have rolled, images and words and ideas will still be infiltrating your brain and you'll be wondering "What did I miss?" and "What did that mean?"
As the film winds down, though, it seems like Natali starts throwing everything at the screen and characters and storylines that had been thought provoking and emotionally involving suddenly give way to an overwhelming silliness and far too many absurd laughs. The more you are able to give into the laughs, the more likely you will embrace Splice as quality filmmaking.
Polley and Brody perform admirably, both during the film's emotionally resonant scenes and during those times when it goes leaping over-the-top. Polley's is by far the most emotionally satisfying performance, but Brody gives some of the film's most delightful non-verbal one-liners during his later interactions with Dren and as the film begins to wind down. Chaneac, a wealth of special effects, embodies Dren with an uncomfortable blend of beastly humanity that constantly feels on the edge of striking out.
Similarly to last year's awful The Fourth Kind, the supporting cast here is dreadful across the board including David Hewlett's turn as Clive and Elsa's supervisor and Brandon McGibbon as Clive's younger brother. Fortunately, Natali focuses little attention on the supporting players.
Cyrille Aufort's original score is appropriately creepy, though Tetsuo Nagata's shadowy camera work too often fails to heighten the film's suspense factor.
It's easy to understand why Guillermo del Toro signed on as the film's Executive Producer, though it's difficult to believe that the film has lived up to his or, for that matter, Polley and Brody's expectations.
Splice could have and should have been a truly great film, but an inconsistent tone and a disappointingly bland and predictable final third lead to an anticlimactic climax.
If you could splice together this film's really awesome 20 minutes with, say, pieces of Species, a pinch of Cube and a few more Bride of Frankenstein moments, then we may very well have ended up with an incredible film. Just like Clive and Elsa, Vincenzo Natali almost created a masterpiece.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic