Scientists in movies have a bad rap. Chances are, if you’re wearing a white coat, you’re going to be meddling with forces with which men were not meant to meddle or performing some kind of freakishly amoral experiment which will threaten the entire fate of humanity.
And indeed, that’s sort of the case in Splice which sees a scientist couple Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody – taking a break from fighting Predators) working for a large pharmaceutical company in order to synthesise proteins for megabucks. In order to do so, they’ve spliced the genes of other animals together to create an artificial life form – a kind of sentient worm which secretes the required chemicals.
But when their operation is threatened to be closed down before they can move to the next stage, Elsa takes things into her own hands and creates a splice that contains human DNA. The resultant creature matures at an increased rate and in order to keep their work hidden, they have to move their creation, now called Dren, to an old gothic barn where, needless to say, things don’t go quite according to plan.
In Splice, director Vincenzo Natali explores the theme of ethical responsibility in science which is especially relevant considering the modern pressures of corporate turnovers and looming deadlines, where profit is often the bottom line. But he’s also concerned with the relationship that scientists have with their creations and the innate lure of the forbidden which ultimately proves too much for Elsa’s curiosity.
These scientific shenanigans are given weight by Splice’s characters. Elsa is reluctant to have a child with Clive but the rapidly changing Dren is quickly adopted by her as a kind of daughter – and Dren shows the same capricious and temperamental nature as any teenager. There’s some ropey back story about Elsa having a troubled childhood but that comes across as a shoehorned plot point to give her character more depth than it otherwise would.
No Frankenstein story would be complete without its monster and Dren (Delphine Chanéac with some CGI frills) is a marvel: rapidly changing from what looks like a bald rabbit into a full grown woman with gills, wings and a prehensile barbed tail. Natali expertly manipulates our sympathies for the creature, so much so that our fears are divided equally between what she might do and what might happen to her.
Splice is at its best when it stays in the sci-fi realm. There’s a constant undercurrent of tension and unease – the scientists wrestling with their consciences as well as their curiosity make for tense and involving viewing. The threat of the emerging unknown is always more unsettling than that which is in plain sight and Natali exploits this for some good scares.
Unfortunately, all this great set up comes to naught in the third act as it rapidly descends into by-the-numbers horror where characters do stupid things and violence becomes inevitable – Clive in particular doing something that doesn’t so much cross the line but dive over it – an action which shatters the film’s previously well constructed plausibility.
For the most part, Splice is an entertaining, relevant and refreshing take on Frankenstein which features some great ideas and excellent performances but unfortunately it has its genetically modified wings clipped by a clichéd and misjudged ending.