VIZ. ARTS
Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

Splice of Life
(Splice, 6/14/10)
By Nicholas Nicastro

With the public's appetite for vampires seemingly nowhere near its bottom, making a movie on a Frankenstein theme must qualify as some kind of counter-programming. Vincenzo Natali, maker of the certifiable strange indie horror Cube, has taken that plunge with his new techno-thriller, Splice. For anybody over the glandular age of seventeen, the result should be far more compelling than teen bloodsuckers in love.
      The script (co-written by Natali) concerns Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley), a married pair of Nobel-caliber geneticists working to develop human-animal hybrids for Big Pharma. One would think this work would need go no farther than colonies of cells in petri dishes, but of course that would be no fun: instead, they go for the Full Monty, gestating whole organisms inside an artificial womb suggestive of the next generation of Swedish dishwashers.
      All this playing of God leaves them no time for the relatively prosaic task of having a kid of their own. Natali, who has named his characters after Colin Clive and Elsa Lanchester, the stars of the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, isn't being coy about where all this is going: the childless bio-boffins take their experiments too far, making a hybrid out of the DNA of a human female and what appears to be a barnyard of domestic animals. The result earns Splice props for uniqueness. Their creation, "Dren", is a she-critter with a capybara's head, goat legs, and a stinging tail, but still vaguely human around the edges. The latter qualities come to the fore as she grows into a premature adolescence marked, one would think, with some truly brutish hormonal issues. Yes, the "going too far" part is predictable, but I'd wager not much else about this story is. Without giving too much away, there's child abuse, animal abuse, incest, and incest again, with nobody coming off as much a hero.
      The emphasis here is more on the development of character than CGI spectacle of biological transformation; this is, after all, a French-Canadian coproduction, not a Hollywood product. In its combination of shock and intelligence, Natali's film most recalls the early work of Canadian David Cronenberg, especially his 1986 remake of The Fly, with the difference being that The Fly was really about accepting death, while Splice is about the terror of facing life in all its uncontrollable exuberance.
      Brody is fine here, but the real star is Sarah Polley. Polley (The Sweet Hereafter, Go, Guinevere) is nothing more or less than herself: bright, unique without being self-consciously "offbeat", appealing in a Jodie Foster-ish way without the diva air. While only a middling actress, her success is more attributable to her good taste in choosing what she can play. When Elsa takes out her anger at Dren by lashing her to a table and amputating her stinger, Polley risks losing her audience—but doesn't. After all, it's just Sarah, right?
      Natali arguably takes Splice through too many transformations, one or two steps beyond the limits of credulity. But for its clever exploitation of the plump, juicy anxieties we all face when contemplating procreation, Splice is a worthwhile experiment.

©2010 Nicholas Nicastro

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