Flawed sci-fi creation could be a monster
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Time to leg it: Delphine Chaneac as Splice (left), and Sarah Polley as Elsa
Splice is a clever sci-fi-horror film perfectly timed for a summer in which scientists have created the first artificial self-replicating life form. Directed by Canadian Vincenzo Natali and produced by Guillermo del Toro, it is sometimes reminiscent of the brilliant, perverse work of David Cronenberg, though less coherent in almost every way.
The film stars Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as Clive and Elsa, married hipster scientists who head a lab for a pharmaceutical corporation. The punky pair are brilliant but also remarkably stupid, especially when it comes to understanding themselves.
As the film opens, Clive and Elsa have succeeded in splicing together a new hybrid life form, based on the DNA of several different animals. The new creature is grotesque - a kind of giant, pink worm the width of a cannonball, and they have created a pair of them, named with smirky irony, Fred and Ginger.
Clive and Elsa want to go on experimenting with the creation of new beings but their employer errs on the side of caution.
Elsa, who cannot encounter a rule without breaking it, refuses to shut down their research and combines some human female DNA - origin supposedly unknown - with that of their hybrid things. The result looks a bit like the infant blobs in Alien but with astonishing rapidity grows into something like a female human baby with chicken legs and widely-spaced big eyes.
Clive says that now they have achieved the scientifically impossible, they should destroy the result of their experiment. But for Elsa, the creature is no longer an "it" but a "she". She starts to treat the creature like a baby of her own, giving it the name Dren ('nerd' backwards) and finding adorable the way it mews and spits up food.
It becomes impossible to hide Dren at the lab so Elsa and Clive take their creation, now the size and approximate shape of a little girl (and dressed by Elsa in little girl's clothes), to the creepy, isolated, long abandoned farmhouse where Elsa grew up with her abusive mother. There Dren enters adolescence, looking like a tall teenaged babe with a bald head, three fingers, a tail and strange, powerful legs with which she can jump great heights. She also shows remarkable cognitive abilities despite an inability to speak, and a tendency to violent rages.
This is of course a version of the Frankenstein story. The film also has obvious echoes of various movies in that genre like Jurassic Park (well-intentioned male scientists bring dinosaurs back to life), Deep Blue Sea (well-intentioned female scientist creates hyper-intelligent sharks for cancer research), and of course the various versions of
HG Wells's classic anti-vivisection novel The Island of Doctor Moreau (scientist turns animals into quasi-people).
What makes Splice unusually provocative and entertaining is that it is also a series of extended satirical jokes about parenting. Once both Clive and Elsa see Dren as a child rather than an experimental thing, classic Freudian rivalries ensue, especially once Dren (French actress Delphine Chaneac) has developed an Electra-like obsession with her "father" and a corresponding dislike of Elsa.
Once rejected by the "daughter" she has taken so many risks to nurture, Elsa starts treating Dren as a mere thing again, a laboratory beagle that can be experimented on or terminated. However, Dren is not a creature you want to mess with, not with all that unpredictable animal DNA in her (you never find out what animals that DNA comes from - she seems to have in her bits of bird, lizard and, given the literal sting in her tail, some scorpion.)
Splice raises some interesting theological issues as well as queasy psychological ones. These scientists are playing God - creating human or quasi-human life, while retaining the option of destroying it as an experiment gone wrong. And though the creature they have created is literally a monster, in some ways its human creators are monsters too. And if that weren't enough theology, when sprouts wings she looks like an angel, or perhaps a Fury.
Splice, like the better genre films, raises interesting and provocative questions, but it does not do much with them. It is also unable to reconcile its jokes and ideas with its scary or disgusting moments, and some of the dialogue is so clunky it jerks you out of emotional involvement. That said, it is still a lot more interesting and fun than most of the year's would-be blockbusters.