Mad science, bad parents


Mother-daughter time?

Mother-daughter time?

Rated 3.0

How do we account, Splice asks, for the kindred dorkdom of lab-cloistered scientists and monster-movie completists? Are we talking nature or nurture here?

Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are Clive and Elsa, two fetching young geneticists whose romantic forays into bioengineering go about as well as you’d expect from a movie that names its characters after actors in Bride of Frankenstein. Which isn’t to say that director Vincenzo Natali and his co-writers Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor are especially old-fashioned. Rather, they seem almost to strain for edgy topicality. It’s just that they’re also preoccupied with matters of heritage.

After combining the DNA of various animals into a pair of enormous, pharmacologically useful slugs, Clive and Elsa now are eager to see what they might whip up by throwing some human genes into the mix. Their corporate overseers seem less keen on the idea, and you would too after the deliciously horrible scene in which a demonstration goes just wrong enough to shower the shareholders with glass and blood.

But Clive and Elsa are ambitious. And they seem to understand each other. “I am not spending the next five years digging through pig shit for enteric proteins,” she tells him. “Me neither,” he replies, after a considered pause. As it happens, their haste is contagious: Natali supplies an adorably industrious scientists-at-work montage, and before we or they know it, Clive and Elsa have become the proud yet also ashamed parents of a little baby rodent-bird-amphibian-arthropod girl.

So this is a weird situation, but apparently it’s better than the pig shit. They call her “Dren,” not just because that’s nerd spelled backward, but also because their lab is called Nucleic Exchange Research and Development. They determine that she “craves high-sucrose foodstuffs,” which seems normal enough, and that she “develops like a fetus outside the womb,” which seems less normal, but does at least present some invigorating challenges, both personal and scientific. (Not to mention cinematic: Natali marshals Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero’s excellent special effects with discretion enough to allow for a performance as the developing Dren by little Abigail Chu.)

Then, needing space and privacy to fully slough off the pretense of their professional principles and delve into their respective parent issues, they spirit her away to Elsa’s conveniently long-abandoned family farm, way out in the gloomy woods.

Thankfully, this just makes things even weirder. Under the increasingly preposterous circumstances, it becomes clear that Clive and Elsa don’t understand each other as well as they’d hoped. As for Dren, well, kids grow up so fast, don’t they? Especially when the movie needs them to. Sooner than soon enough, she has developed to the point of being played as a nominal adult by the model Delphine Chanéac—all ornery, attention-wanting, bald and intensely attractive, like Sinead O’Connor with a stinging tail and kangaroo legs. For review purposes, details hereafter are best left vague.

Suffice to say there’s a lot going on in Splice. It’s not quite the subversive cult-movie romp it might have been, but transgenderism, incest and bestiality all at once has to count for something. Unfortunately for Natali and company, leaving no trope unturned means not giving any enough consideration. But Brody and Polley are sharp and resourceful actors, impressively undaunted by all the confused instincts, Freudian eruptions and other karmic consequences that the filmmakers have hurled at them.

Upon advancing into its final act, the film seems to be leaking inspiration. Having now fully elaborated on the obscure, ominous, moist-sounding images of quivering flesh in its CGI-savvy opening credits, it finally just trudges to an obligatory bore of an action climax. Of course this might be par for the course of a movie whose point, at least in part, is: “Well, that was a bad idea.”

It goes to show: Whether you’re working with strands of DNA or with strips of film, the power of the splice is its creative potential. You just have to keep an open mind. Tell yourself there are no mistakes, only choices. No abominations, only fascinations. And while you’re at it, tell yourself that a lot of life’s mystery is explainable by the dangerously fertile combination of mad science and bad parenting.