Horror films are supposed to be scary and fill you with foreboding, fear and then the elation of the protagonist having survived a frightening situation. A good horror film is an adrenaline rush, an emotional roller coaster that can be surprisingly fun.
Unfortunately, Splice is none of these things, and when you finally get to the scary scene, it’s about ten minutes from the end of the film, after a build-up that left me bored and had most of the audience laughing at what were supposed to be the tense scenes.
The fundamental problem with Splice is that the three writers, Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor, couldn’t decide if they were creating a thoughtful docu-drama about the ethical dilemma posed by genetic manipulation or a straight-out horror film, and instead created a film that’s boring and unfocused, with two of the stupidest “scientist” roles ever committed to screen.
Splice takes place in the R&D facility of Newstead Pharma, run by cliché money-grubbing CEO Joan Chorot (Simona Maicanescu in a startlingly bad performance). The genetic engineering lab, known as Nucleic Exchange Research & Development, is run by husband and wife couple Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) and also employs Clive’s brother Gavin (Brandon McGibbon), a character who seemed like he should have been cast in the next Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure instead.
They’re doing genetic splicing to create creatures that can produce medicinal proteins that will be worth billions and Elsa wants to add human DNA to the stew to work towards cures for altzheimers, cancer, and a laundry list of other ailments. The result is a weird quasi-human called Dren (played, with some CG assist, by Delphine Chanéac).
The result is that Splice is an unfrightening mess of a film that could have been a thoughtful exploration of the moral and ethical dilemmas associated with genetic manipulation or could have been a “look what we’ve unleashed on the world!” film in the mold of Frankenstein, but instead it’s neither and ends up a slick looking but pointless cinematic experience.
Director Vincenzo Natali is best known for the weird thriller Cube and, in partnership with cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata, who most recently wrapped up the oddball French film Micmacs, they’ve created a polished look for Splice. The set design, the exterior shots, the lighting, it all comes together very well and I think we’re going to see some great things from these two (one upcoming project for Natali, btw, is a screen adaptation of the amazing cyperpunk novel Neuromancer).
Delphine Chanéac does a fascinating job with the role of Dren (the name, in case you haven’t figured it out, is “nerd” backwards, and “nerd” is the acronym for the R&D facility). Her performance reminded me of the amazing work of Andy Serkis in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it was fascinating to watch Dren go from a weird little chicken-like creature reminiscent of the creature in the troubling film Eraserhead to a fully mature – and attractive – human female.
Elsa (Sarah Polley) encounters Dren for the first time in Splice
I’m a big fan of Adrien Brody and enjoy his ability to be the mythical everyman that makes so many film protagonists work, particularly in good horror films, but his performance here was marred by the overall stupidity of his role. Worse, though, was Sarah Polley, who couldn’t decide if she was supposed to be the creepy psycho who initially seems like a perfectly rational scientist or whether she was indeed that cerebral intellectual tormented by a horrible childhood.
The two of them were worse than babbling idiots and some of the scenes of their so-called “research” in the lab were painful to watch, they were so idiotic. A helpful tip to Clive: if you’re dealing with an unknown entity that is assaulting your wife and you have to attack it with a scalpel, it’s probably not a smart idea to then put the scalpel, dripping alien goo, in your mouth.
There are also dozens of unexplored story elements that could have made Splice a more interesting film, enough that I wonder whether a director’s cut might make more sense. One I’ve already alluded to: what happened during Elsa’s childhood that she has the phobias and amoral tendencies she clearly demonstrates, and how does that relate to the accelerated childhood and sexual awakening of Dren?
And speaking of sexual awakenings, if you want to see a creepy horror film where there’s an alien creature that’s sexually aware and dangerous, you’d be better off to rent Species, a film that people will inevitably reference. It’s not a great film, but at least it makes sense and you’re not left yelling “don’t do that, you stupid mock-scientist!” at the screen too often. (of course, having said that, I am well aware that a trope of horror films is to identify with the protagonist and then be upset at the clearly stupid decisions they make)
My recommendation: Skip Splice entirely and hope that next time the addition of a fourth writer will help this team clean up the mess and make the compelling, frightening gene manipulation film that this could have become.