Splice is an anxious, claustrophobic monster movie inheriting a great deal from Cronenberg’s The Fly – a chronicle of the life cycle of an abomination, humanized enough that we start to forget how to maintain our emotional distance from it. In Splice, the effect is that the film feels cramped and frantic, an unstoppable two-hour surrender of control in the face of an impossible situation. This is reinforced by the uncertainty about Dren’s nature and development, and by the complex and ultimately unhealthy emotional hang-ups of the main characters themselves.
In Splice, Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play Clive and Elsa, a scientific couple on the verge of a profound breakthrough in molecular biology. They've been using grant money to splice together a number of species in search of unique chemical compounds, and just as they're reaching toward the ultimate breakthrough — the use of human DNA to create a new hybrid — their investors try to stop their research so they can focus on creating a marketable product. Elsa's enthusiasm assuages their mutual uncertainty, and they decide to go through with the human recombination anyway, and in a back room in their lab, they create a creature and start overseeing its development, ostensibly out of curiosity and determination alone. However, as this creature's accelerated growth allows it to develop into something recognizably human, they take a natural paternal interest in its survival. This leads them down a slippery slope of fear and destruction, and hope seems to pass out of reach.
Like many of Cronenberg’s films, Vincenzo Natali's Splice plays out in closed spaces, where fears and frustrations are set to simmer. The NERD lab is a little locked box, allowing the growth of unhealthy dependencies that are integral to the stresses and entanglements of the rest of the movie. The green light and harsh geometry of the lab contrasts sharply with the shadowy elusiveness of the farm, the setting for the second half of the film; the camera’s refusal to escape these isolated locations enhances our sense that the characters have put themselves into an inescapable situation.
Within this space, the film itself moves along briskly, with minor twists and an accumulation of frustrations and conflicts and failures that puts both the characters and the viewers on edge. Growing up is difficult enough, but with Dren’s hyper-accelerated life cycle, it becomes giddy and cognitively overwhelming. Complications seem to cascade over the makeshift little family, leaving them in constant crisis mode. For most of the film, Dren isn’t evil or monstrous… it’s the feeling of helplessness and lack of control that’s the real adversary.
The complex personalities of the human characters are a noteworthy triumph of Splice. From the beginning, we sense that there’s something unbalanced about Elsa’s behavior, and this early suggestion leads to a solid payoff, as her behavior becomes one of the most troubling influences in a deeply sinister film. However, Natali never quite abandons her as a moral agent, and it’s moving to see her wrestle with her issues as the crisis plays out. Clive is less dynamic, but he too is given some emotional weight through his relationship with his brother, who occasionally intrudes upon the escalating crisis with a breath of alarm and outrage from the outside world. Interestingly, this only serves to reinforce the sense that Clive and Elsa are hopelessly trapped in their situation.
Dren, the third major character in Splice’s dysfunctional family, is a great triumph of on-screen abomination. She lives the whole film in the uncanny valley, and Natali boldly decides to focus heavily on her most human, most sympathetic moments. Dren’s experience putting on make-up, her naïve grin at her parents after she kills a rabbit, her childhood education and love of candy – her unusual appearance is always unsettling, but we’re always meant to see her as a human child and teenager, rather than an animal. This makes the central "wrongness" of her existence, the impossible situation she creates for her caretakers, into something less horrific and more tragic.
I fear Splice will be overlooked because its marketing indicated it as a horror movie. Horror fans will only be partially satisfied… there are enough slimy, spurting, oozing scenes to create some satisfying disgust, but the film rarely bothers to build slow suspense, or to deliver genuinely disturbing images or nerve-wracking shocks. This leaves a film of atmosphere, character, and concept, a slippery and cerebral movie that makes good use of personal and ethical dilemmas and nightmarish uncertainties. However, it will inspire the constant criticism of "that wasn't that scary" from people who are used to more purposeful, demanding horror tactics.
This is a statement on the nature of the film, but not its value. Its value isn't in the horror, nor purely in the psychological drama, the enigmatic concept, or the breathless suspense. Ultimately, Splice is a complex, twisted final product, the transcendent sum of all these merits. The bottom line: within this ostensible horror film is a desperate, dramatic sci-fi thriller that balances a plethora of elements to brilliant effect.