Rating (out of 5): ***
I find Splice maddening, provocative, erratic, brave enough to suggest something greater, hard to dismiss, but ultimately frustrating. It's an intriguing film that touches on hot-button issues involving bioethics and corporate science, things that not only "could happen" but are happening. The early David Cronenberg influence in the new film by Cube director Vincenzo Natali is clear, and that's both a compliment and a burden. I say this not just because it's a Canadian production, but because the film manages to weave in the gross out with the cold and clinical, with a distinctly wry Canadian sense of humor that is sometimes overlooked in Cronenberg's best work, too. Essentially a modernized take on the age old mad scientist creating a monster tale, as well as cautionary tale on genetic engineering, Splice has its effectively scary moments, but it is not quite on a level with The Fly.
Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody aren't just fine, empathetic actors; they have the right kind of incredibly expressive faces for the film, Brody always looks like he's swallowed a mug of sadness and Polley has a sweet, nurturing quality that fits her maternal-minded role. The give their characters more weight than they might have, but that also spotlights frustration I have in the script that has their scientist couple behaving often so conveniently idiotic. And that's the heart of Splice's problem -- the script. Natali is excellent with atmosphere, and in making a fantastical set up feel all too real.
But his screenplay with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor is full of bad dialogue (again, some of the dialogue is intentionally dryly witty, but there are some clunkers here, hoo boy) and maddeningly dumb behavior. One of the better films about differing parenting methods, Splice works better as a dark analogy of child-rearing than as a film about science gone awry. Partially because the two main scientists do so many stupid things. I found myself forgiving of Polley's Elsa in part because I like Polley so much -- and yet still felt the urge to shake her violently.
You do want Brody to say, "This is an awful lot to go through to avoid having to give birth!" Or Polley to say "Nobody puts my genetically modified baby in the corner!" Okay, the comedy isn't quite that overt.
The film is riddled with those moments, in which you either go with it and then think later are quite scientifically stupid, or think are quite stupid right at the moment they occur -- Dren sprouts wings out of the blue? Okay, we are to buy this because of all the genetic soup they cooked her with, but it still seemed a sudden convenience. And there are many opportunities to skewer corporate science, how capitalistic greed can trump the ethics of science, but with a caricatured company liaison (played by David Hewlett) a rather weak villain -- while Simona Maicanescu's company boss fares a bit better as a more intriguing, if underdeveloped character -- there's not much in the way of complexity there.
There are indeed moments of black humor, slyly funny, and most certainly intentionally so -- while there are just as many moments where it's all, as the General on Monty Python's Flying Circus would come on and say, "gotten a bit silly." Still, the humor that's there, as is typically Canadian, is so deadpan that I think some audiences may not even see it. A perfect example is in a truly unforgettable, hilariously disturbing scene, maybe the film's best, a key moment when the scientists reveal their breakthrough creatures (dubbed "Fred" and "Ginger") and everything, let's just say, goes horribly awry.
Seeing it in the theater, the 18 year old guys in front of me who tittered uncomfortably through most of the film were particularly weirded out and giggly during the soon to be famous sex scene, but I found it appropriately creepy, a little erotic and sure, a bit awkwardly humorous. Their reaction reminded me of my own as a teenager when a friend and I snuck into see Cronenberg's The Fly in theaters and ran the similar gamut of reactions: appalled, fascinated, grossed out, and then tittering during a disturbing-yet-sexy sex scene. But Cronenberg's film is far superior to this in its depiction of science run amok.
Still, Ultimately, Splice does what a horror film should, gets under your skin, sticks with you in unsettling ways even after the lights go back up. It's just a shame that it's so full of missed opportunities, and not quite able to settle on a tone. It feels trapped in a netherworld between purposely goofy B movie horror and smarter than average science-horror, that doesn't quite work into either arena.
Notes: The movie also leaves one with nagging questions (and some spoilers within):
- And why does the actor playing Brody's brother look like a spliced hybrid of Jack White and Martin Starr?
- Why would a genius scientist (and a clever screenwriter) not be able to come up with a better name for the spliced animal-girl than NERD spelled backwards?
- When will poor cats stop being used as cruel fodder for horror shock? I'm starting to see it coming, folks.
The DVD includes a bonus featurette, "A Director's Playground: Vicenzo Natali on the Set of Splice."
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