sat 14/12/2019

Splice | reviews, news & interviews

Splice

Splice

Vincenzo Natali's bio-thriller mixes challenging issues with schlocktastic effects

Mother and child reunion: Dren (Delphine Chanéac) gets the drop on Elsa (Sarah Polley)

Although it has taken over a decade to come to fruition, Splice still feels like a timely piece of work with its macabre and gruesome take on notions of genetic mutation for commercial gain and the god-like delusions of the scientific community. In addition, it spits out poisonous barbs in the direction of dysfunctional parents who visit their own inadequacies on their hapless offspring.

Canadian director Vincenzo Natali, previously best known for the 1997 shocker Cube, has evidently hoovered up a few tricks from fellow Canuck David Cronenberg, with whom he shares a fascination with weird science and bad biology. His protagonists here are Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley), a pair of super-ambitious genetic engineers breaking new ground in the field of DNA splicing to create new hybrid animals. These in turn produce rare enzymes and chemicals which are invaluable to the Big Pharma bosses who fund their research. They’re especially proud of a pair of large wriggly worm-like things nicknamed Fred and Ginger (earlier prototypes were tagged Sid and Nancy and Bogey and Bacall), which mate with each other by sticking out bizarre fern-like tendrils and entwining them.

Clive and Elsa are also a romantic item, though there’s one thing missing from their deluxe loft condo – kids. Trampling over the reservations of cautious Clive, super-ambitious Elsa slips a little of her own human DNA into their experimental mix. Next thing you know, they’ve hatched a bouncing baby semi-chicken critter, with marsupial feet and a cuddly little pink head. Clive’s initial reactions are shock and horror, but Elsa soon develops warm, maternal feelings towards… whatever it is.

Splice_Drown_smallThey name it Dren (the name of their laboratory, NERD, spelt backwards), but their initial hopes of being able to control the creature prove delusional. Natali has plenty of fun playing with their, and our, expectations, as Dren morphs into what is very nearly a pouty teenage girl (played by Delphine Chanéac), except she also has a long, whippy tail and cloven hoofs. And while their “kid” can be needy and cuddly, she has a piercing alien stare and unsettling feral instincts, while developing a thoroughly inappropriate crush on Clive. Maybe you can guess where that leads. (Clive and Elsa cope with bathtime tantrums, above)

We get a premonitory heads-up of the little ways science can go mad when Fred and Ginger turn feral and bloodthirsty in front of a prestigious assembly of the international scientific community. Dren keeps growing and changing and becomes impossible to hide, so the couple move her out to the derelict farm where Elsa grew up, an embittered daughter of a cold, cruel mother. Mother love warps into Mommy Dearest as she starts taking out her stored-up hurt on Dren, subjecting her to thoroughly unscientific brutality. You find yourself wondering which one is the real monster, though ultimately it’s Dren’s final mega-grotesque incarnation that sweeps the board.

Natali’s problem is that his fable can really only go one way, though the route is adorned with all manner of bad-taste shocks and taste-free titillation. His initially absorbing narrative starts to crumble as the creature’s freakish evolutions gobble up all the on-screen oxygen, and what might have been Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ends up as Animal House’s Monster Weekend. Brody (born to do geek) and Polley (aggressive, driven and unloveable) do as much as any human actors could to cover the plot’s modesty with some scanty shreds of credibility, but ultimately their task resembles trying to remake Singin’ in the Rain in the midst of Hurricane Katrina.

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Elsa slips a little of her own human DNA into their experimental mix. Next thing you know, they’ve hatched a bouncing baby semi-chicken critter with marsupial feet

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