Flawed ethics line the slimy ovum of the new science-fiction/horror hybrid Splice. The film is a combination of a hip version of the old mad-scientist tale and an unsettlingly apt family dynamics drama, but ultimately the whole thing turns too-predictable and unpleasant for our pair of protagonists.
And what a slick pair they are! No buttoned-down-lab-coat-wearing stereotypes here. No, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are young and brilliant, dealing in a new technique for gene splicing that has allowed them to create two samples of a new life-form: grey, leathery blobs they call Fred and Ginger. When they go home each day, they live in an apartment covered with framed pop-culture artwork, their shelves lined with a warehouse of expensive Kid Robot figurines. They play their music loud while splicing, and when they have a successful day, Elsa pops tiny Japanese candies like a speed freak.
(Perhaps we should know going in that these two are going to indulge in some far-flung and regrettably poor decision-making. They work for a shady corporate entity run by a stern French woman, a frosty CEO whose vaguely threatening monotone and firm hand upon a conference room table cuts through any attempt at democratic policy discussion. If our “heroes” are willing to sell off their work, how can they be relied upon to observe the lines between true scientific discovery and product development?)
All of this non-stereotype-stereotyping would be fine, except when the company tells them to stop their discovery work and begin synthesizing proteins for revenue purposes, they ignore their orders and secretly begin gene splicing with partial human DNA. (Their reactions would seem to indicate that synthesizing proteins is the science equivalent of updating your TPS forms.) What they create looks like a cross between a baby, a seal and a kangaroo. Elsa and Clive are aware that what they are doing is not only unethical but highly illegal. What they don’t suspect is that it could end up getting them killed.
Vincenzo Natali is the director of the original Cube and the darkest portion of the romantic omnibus Paris Je T’aime (Elijah Wood’s vampire encounter). He seems perfectly in his element with moral murkiness and unseen (or unexpected) threat. And Natali’s work here is the best thing about the film. For the better part of the first two acts, there is a terrific, alternating sense of surface tension and deceptive calm that is reminiscent of Cronenberg’s earlier, more gruesome tales. He never resorts to the kind of annoying smash cuts that practically every other horror film uses to frustrating effect. Natali also makes the most of dim, shadowy and claustrophobically cluttered sets.
The actors acquit themselves nicely, but their characters’ actions create an early and frequent stumbling block for the film’s success. The writing in Splice is shamefully amateurish. Jargon is tossed around quickly, so you don’t have much of a chance to question what it all means, which in a film like this is almost excusable. But Clive and Elsa must be intelligent, disciplined and far-sighted to do what they do. So when Elsa makes her first in a long string of bad decisions, then allows her maternal instinct to override her rationality, and then responds to every sensible question with a childish “why?”, she begins to grate on your nerves. Late in the film, she makes a sharp about-face when threatened, seemingly because of treatment she received at the hands of an unfit mother. But this change is so abrupt that her cold, clinical shift seems unsuited to the person we’ve watched up to that point.
As for poor Clive, he thuddingly shifts from Hip Single Guy to Angry Dad to Nice Dad Foil For Angry Mom…and then to something so stupid he should have his Science Pals license revoked. Here’s a tip for any budding genetic researchers out there: be careful what body parts you stick into your work.
Splice has a lot going for it, and for mood alone it is a winning attempt. But the attitudes and lack of intelligence or reason shown by allegedly intelligent and reasonable characters can be maddening. Had the film been written in a more logical manner to match its core substance, it would have been a top-notch exploration of the horror found in science reality.