Audiences looking for straight up horror might be disappointed by the lower key thrills on offer from Splice, but those open to more thoughtful monster sci-fi will find a lot to love. It’s kind of a Frankenstein for the modern age with grave robbing and organ transplant replaced by the cutting edge in genetic engineering.

Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody are Elsa and Clive, romantic and research partners working in the field of genetics. Through animal genetic hybridization, they’ve created new customized life forms useful in the production of potentially valuable livestock pharmaceuticals. Being scientists however, their ground-breaking success isn’t enough and they’re eager to find cures for human diseases by applying what they’ve learned to human DNA. Playing god with animals is one thing, but tampering with the building blocks of human beings is a slippery moral slope and they must conduct their controversial experiments in secret.

Against the wishes of the company that funds their research, Elsa and Clive create Dren, a rapidly growing humanoid life form that combines human genes with those of various animals. Once their theories become reality, a whole series of ethical questions are raised. Though bizarre looking, Dren quickly grows into a thinking, feeling creature not all that different from a human child. She’s wholly unpredictable however and keeping her a secret becomes more and more difficult as she continues to develop and change. Soon Elsa and Clive are not only protecting Dren from the world, they might be protecting the world from Dren.

The CGI used to render Dren as an infant and to enhance the performance of actresses Abigail Chu and Delphine Chaneac as Dren matures looks like CGI, but it’s effective enough to keep you from thinking about the effects too much. They’re matter-of-fact and not overly showy in a way that would draw attention away from the story’s drama.

To that end, filmmaker Vincenzo Natali gets a couple of grounded, believable performances from Polley and Brody. They help keep the film on course as the story becomes crazier and crazier.

The film builds slowly and it saves most of the suspense for the final act. Even then, the action is never over the top. Natali is more interested in ideas than scares. The problem is that the ideas themselves aren’t all that original and none of them are fully explored. Genetics is a newish field, but stories rooted in the fear of overweening scientists playing god goes back almost as far as science itself.

Though it would’ve benefited from either a stronger commitment to horror or a more carefully considered working out of themes, Splice still works. It has a Cronenberg feel to it, though it’s less cold and often more humorous. It’s not perfect, but it’s a refreshing break from sci-fi without a thought in its head.

Splice. Canada/France 2010. Directed by Vincenzo Natali. Screenplay by Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant and  Doug Taylor from a screen story by Vincenzo Natali and Antoinette Terry Bryant. Cinematography by Tetsuo Nagata. Music score composed by Cyrille Aufort. Musical direction/supervision by Jean-Pierre Arquie, Amy Fritz and Marie Sabah. Edited by Michele Conroy. Production design by Todd Cherniawsky. Art direction by Joshu du Cartier. Starring Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chaneac, Brandon McGibbon, Simona Maicanescu, David Hewlett and Abigail Chu. 1 hour 40 minutes. MPAA rated R for disturbing elements including strong sexuality, nudity, sci-fi violence and language. 3.5 stars (out of 5)

9 Responses to “Review: Splice (2010) *** 1/2”

  1. Your first sentence is something that applied perfectly to the group I saw the film with. While I found the film enjoyable, many of the people there were hardcore horror fans, and they were incredibly disappointed when they realized that this was not going to be a complete thrill ride. The final fifteen minutes or so remedied some of that, but the dramatic overtones really left them upset.

  2. Yeah the audience I saw it with grumbled as they walked out. Based on the trailer I was expecting more horror too, but I was happy with what it turned out to be.

    Could’ve been better, but it was good enough.

  3. It’s faint praise given the slate of films that preceded it, but to date Splice was the most thrilling and enthralling thing I’ve seen this year. I don’t think del Toro has to remake Frankenstein anymore, because Natali has nailed the update already.

    Since I just finished it about four hours ago, I haven’t fully collected my thoughts on it, but just a few things I loved about it:

    It’s not a complete reversal, but I like how it switched up the gender roles from Frankenstein. Instead of Clive being the driving force behind the creation, it’s Elsa. We follow her descent into obsession as he’s largely a (complicit) bystander. And, like Elizabeth in the novel, he has to face the worst of the consequences. Clearly, Splice isn’t an out-and-out adaptation of Frankenstein, but the places where the two mirror and diverge make for a rich, compelling narrative.

    The visual effects, particularly for the adult Dren, were fantastic. So was the performance by the actress. I felt they blended much more seemlessly than they did in, say, Benjamin Button. Granted, I think the adult Dren was more make-up special fx than CG.

    To that end, I really enjoyed Sarah Polley’s performance. I thought that she nailed the role of “man of reason,” spiked with maternal instincts and passive-aggressiveness, with plenty of nuance to spare. And, unlike Frankenstein, she didn’t back down from her scientific pursuit at the end, even after it cost her so much (personally-speaking).

    As someone who is generally supportive of stem cell research, I’m not sure I like the tenor of the criticism leveled against genetic research. That’s not what the film is all about, but I worry that people watching the film will confuse the kind of science Clive and Elsa are engaged in with the responsible, scientific method that most geneticists are bound by.

    Those intellectual worries aside, I loved the film. I can’t fault it for the thoughts it may or may not implant in its audience.

  4. “I don’t think del Toro has to remake Frankenstein anymore, because Natali has nailed the update already.” Thematically, for sure, though you can’t really approach the iconography of Frankenstein in any other movie.

    I agree that the roll reversal was nice and I liked how it tied into the idea of motherhood. At the same time, I think you’d agree that Brody gets to plumb some pretty squirm-worthy depths himself..I’m thinking of a certain love scene…

    I was surprised at the depths of creepiness Polley summoned up. She’s usually so “nice” even in something like Go.

    As for the effects, they probably deserve more credit than I gave them. I think Natali was smart not to emphasize them too much. They were used judiciously as necessary and were never really used to show off the state of the art which is often distracting.

    Intellectually, I also tend to favor science (and in this case genetic research), but at the same time I think it’s important to question what we’re doing. Whether it’s inventing nuclear bombs or fusing animals with humans, there are consequences to be had and questions to be asked.

  5. Agreed on pretty much all those points.

    I’d still like to see a del Toro Frankenstein, but I’d rather see a del Toro 3993 or At the Mountains of Madness. I’m stubborn like that. To my mind, though, Natali got most of the thematic elements of Shelley’s book. The plot doesn’t align perfectly and the iconography is clearly different, but it comes across as a adaptation in spirit nonetheless.

    Although Brody does a good job, Polley and–to a lesser extent–Chaneac overshadowed him on first viewing. I don’t doubt that a sex scene is a challenge for any actor, but I felt there was less going on underneath the surface of that character. You knew he was conflicted from the very beginning and the character didn’t stray too far from that mindset.

    Genetics is a polarizing subject. While I thought the film brought a lot of moral and ethical complications to the table, people tend not to think in the abstract. Either playing God is bad and we shouldn’t mess with genetics or Genetics can save lives so we should pursue it. Not a lot of people recognize the gray areas and try to actively consider them. That’s the root of my worry that a film like this could fuel the fires of the former camp.

    It’s not the film’s fault, but people are people. Some people will inevitably leave the theater thinking most geneticists are misguided fools who are playing God and could unleash their own Dren someday.

  6. The Frankenstein monster ethics aren’t original, but the emphasis is more on nature/nuture transferrence of abuse and neglect anyway. In that way, D. Edelstein is correct to compare SPLICE to THE BROOD (the final scene with the worms also recalls THE FLY).

    The picture probably looked pretty darn good on paper, and Dren is a memorable monster, but the picture is too darn restrained and stereotypically Canadian. It needs the sort of explosive finish that the Cronenberg FLY had. ORPHAN, another Dark Castle movie, is a fuller, more human, even more daring exploration of similar ideas.

    I still kinda dug Splice though.

  7. Yeah I have to say I liked it also, despite some reservations. Partly I think it suffers from not quite being the movie I wanted it to be. A little more Cronenberg madness would’ve been welcome.

  8. There is a disturbing kinship between this film and the recently released (and seen) HUMAN CENTIPEDE, and in both films there remains a kind of morbid fascination, those in one sense the narrative arc in SPLICE is more of the standard variety, as it taps on the Frankenstein story in more ways than one.

    I received some accurate and must appreciated advice the other day from Craig, when I e mailed him to appraise me of the film’s “child” friendliness. Apart from that late scene with strong sexual content, there really wasn’t anything objectionable. Hence I would up taking two of my sons along, both of whom persistently referred to the film as “weird” when I asked them to explain their reaction.

    In the end my position is very close to Craig’s. I’ll say 3, while he has it as 3.5. Fair enough. Looking back up this thread I see WJ refers to it as the “most thrilling and enthralling” film he’s seen this year. This is definitely not a position I am remotely close to, but as a lifelong fan of this genre I can fully understand and respect this position.

    Craig lays out his case well, and yeah I agree it’s never “over the top” and both Polley and Brody are believable.

  9. I think I admired more what Splice was going for than what it ultimately achieved. It lost its way some in the end, and some have attributed that to studio meddling. I don’t know if that’s the case or not.

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