Warmer Brothers, which picked up Vincenzo Natali’s independent picture for distribution, is marketing it as a standard-issue horror movie, and the result is likely to disappoint a lot of people. The mass audience, which will find the piece too peculiar for its taste. And the studio honchos, who probably won’t be satisfied with the modest grosses, at least after the first weekend.
But the person who will suffer most will be Natali, who’s made an odd, creepy little shocker that could have built a cult following had it been carefully nurtured to find its true audience rather than dumped on a thousand screens. It’s perhaps the worst decision of this sort since the now-defunct Newmarket blundered by going wide with “Donnie Darko” in 2002 with the suggestion that it was a run-of-the-mill teen slasher flick.
Not that “Splice” is as strange and cryptic as Richard Kelly’s remarkable debut feature. Natali’s movie is basically an updated “Frankenstein” tale in which the mad scientists—live-in eggheads Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley)—are a couple of genetic researchers who, after succeeding in combining DNA strands from different animals to extract new proteins with pharmaceutical potential, decide to surreptitiously introduce human DNA into the process, though their employers forbid them to do so. Naturally things go awry and their creation turns out to be a dangerous hybrid, which evolves gradually from a fetus-like lump into a distinctly humanoid creature, though with avian and amphibian characteristics as well. They name it Dren, and as it grows quickly to full size (embodied in that form by supple, expressive actress Delphine Chaneac), they transport it to Elsa’s deserted family farm, where they disagree on how to handle the increasingly fraught situation. In this latter section, “Splice” becomes a high-strung parable of the difficulties of family life, centering on Elsa’s reluctance to have children as a result of the psychological trauma stemming from her unhappy childhood. It all builds to an action climax and an ending with a twist that isn’t as surprising as it wants to be.
In style and mood “Splice” resembles the films of David Cronenberg, though without the same degree of icy precision. The attitude of cool detachment is familiar, as is the almost sterile environment, even in locations that are grubby and messed. So too is its use of a science-fiction narrative to examine deeper issues about human relationships. The film doesn’t achieve the perfect fusion of those elements one finds in Cronenberg’s best, but it’s a noble attempt, and works more often than not.
Natali is fortunate in his cast—not only Chaneac, whose ability to suggest an alien component while seeming oddly human (as well as handling all the dexterous moves the role requires) is impressive, but Brody and Polley, who manage to keep their characters’ professional obsession within bounds while making a convincing couple. In Brandon McGibbon he also found a plausible brother for Brody, with the same hangdog facial expression and nerdy hairstyle. Simona Maicanescu and David Hewlitt exude the proper degree of corporate malevolence as the business backers of the team’s genetic experimentation.
“Splice” was an independent production with a relatively modest budget, but it looks eerily right. The frigid Canadian locations provide a properly chilly atmosphere, and all the interiors point to a solid production design (by Todd Cherniawsky), art direction (Joshu de Cartier) and set design and decoration (Gordon Lebredt, Dan Norton, Zjelka Alosinac and Liesl Deslauriers). Cyril Aufort’s score is appropriately unsettling.
Natali has made a film that’s part monster movie and part domestic drama. While the mixture doesn’t entirely gel, and the result sometimes seems like a superior episode from the new “Outer Limits” series, it’s a cinematic hybrid sufficiently intriguing to merit a visit.