Canadian filmmaker Vincenzo Natali is best known for “Cube,” a clever little sci-fi shocker that earned him a reputation as a master of high-concept think-pieces. Despite his cult following, however, his follow-up works – the enjoyable dark comedy “Nothing” and the slick thriller “Cypher” – never caught on, having been abandoned as direct-to-video releases here in the States.
Now comes “Splice,” Natali’s long-awaited (by some, at least) return to the realm of sci-fi horror. Thanks to a successful run at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Warner Bros. picked up the film, giving Natali his first high profile release.
Sadly, it’s also his worst film, by a wide margin.
On its surface, “Splice” is another mad scientist movie, updated with modern fears about human cloning and DNA tampering. “Designer organism” experts Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), having already created some lumpy slug-beast things out of genetic gumbo only to have their project taken away from them by their pharmaceutical company bosses who say it’s time to stop creating new lumpy slug-beast thing species and start manufacturing medicines produced by glands in the lumpy slug-beast things they already have (got all that?), decide to work on a human-animal hybrid in secret. As you can guess, things go awry when the creature (they eventually name her “Dren,” which is “nerd” backwards for reasons to ridiculous to explain here) grows at an incredible rate; their efforts to hide her from their co-workers lead to disaster.
Natali, who co-wrote the screenplay with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor, isn’t completely interested in any of the usual monster-go-boo antics of the genre; those expecting such shocks are bound to come out disappointed. Instead, the filmmaker aims for something more thoughtful and character driven. He’s taking risks here. They seldom pay off, but in a genre where risks seldom come, a risky failure can be more fascinating than a safe success.
Still, a failure’s a failure. In trying to add a complexity to the leads, the writers go too far and burden then with unnecessary histories that both clutter up and dumb down the overall plot. (Minor spoilers the rest of this paragraph.) We discover Elsa’s haunted past, filled with abuse and neglect and a literally psychotic mother, facts which only exist so we can ooh and aah and hmm when we learn she used her own DNA to make Dren – and now Dren’s got the psycho killer gene, oh snap! It’d be one thing if Elsa’s past was merely mentioned to give a heft to her reluctance to have children; it’s another, far lesser thing to take all that sourpuss brooding and use it as the basis for a flimsy almost-a-twist when none’s needed. It’s a monster movie. Can’t the monster just be psycho on its own terms?
Oh, there’s plenty of sourpuss brooding to go around in “Splice,” and that’s ultimately what kills the movie. Much of the ethical quandaries here – boiled down to the darkly comic “what’s the worst that could happen?” line that’s repeated often, almost to the point of mantra (although I prefer to quote Patton Oswalt: “Science! We’re all about coulda, not shoulda.”) – get sidelined, Natali and company paying just enough lip service to the moral ambiguity of genetic engineering to cover their bases.
The script is much more interested with the (too on-the-nose to ultimately work) parenthood metaphors. Elsa is introduced as emotionally cold, referring to the baby Clive wants as “some third party.” Ah, but once Dren comes into the world, Elsa becomes a doting mother, treating the creature (which grows from something of a butt with legs to a bald, giant-eyed naked woman with goat legs, hand feet, and dragon wings – the makeup and effects work are commendable) as her own daughter.
The filmmakers pull a clever move as they make Clive something of a villain early on – Elsa has to convince him not to kill it after it’s born, and later he tries to drown it – only to turn tables and make him the mad scientist we eventually trust once Elsa grows colder and meaner. It’s the sort of switcheroo few mainstream movies would attempt. But it doesn’t fully click, since this plot maneuver pushes us toward Elsa’s thorny past, a concept that only loses us as it deepens.
Brody and Polley pull some nice moments out of the more comical scenes, such as a brutally disgusting sequence involving an insane amount of blood splatter and its understated aftermath. (Natali regular David Hewlett also earns some calm chuckles as a stereotypical jerky boss.) But every time the film offers to win us over with bleak laughs, Natali suddenly pulls back, dumping more navel gazing and bad-mother melodramatics. It’s as if he’s actively avoiding a single tone – except, perhaps, drab.
The film’s best saving grace is Delphine Chanéac, who plays the “adult” Dren. Speaking only in whines and dolphin-like clicks, Chanéac lends a whimsically alien quality to the film, building a performance around inhuman, often birdlike mannerisms which constantly remind us of her sheer otherness. This is when “Splice” is at its most fascinating, when it examines Dren not as a monster, but as a lonely girl who’s not quite human. (Abigail Chu plays a child-sized Dren and also deserves a mention for some equally engaging, if brief, work.)
All that “lonely girl” stuff gets bogged down as Natali reaches deeply into the psychology of it all but pulls out nothing of great interest. And then, as if suddenly bored with all the pouting, he sets his sights back on monster-go-boo, the very genre he seemed so adamant to avoid for so long. And he does it without bothering to be particularly scary. It’s the final moment of collapse for the film, which just plain gives in to blandness for its bloody finale. It’s nice to see a genre film try to be smarter than it needs to be, but each try fails, again and again, and all we really get is a genre film that’s duller than it should have been.