In a moment of surreal clarity, it occurred to me as the end credits rolled that ‘Splice’ is basically ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ but with psycho-sexual overtones, monstrous angels and off-the-scale exponential evolutionary development. Both films take playing-God scientists as their protagonists; said protagonists take their work home with them in an absolutely literal sense; their work develops very quickly into something they can no longer control.
Both films feature bio-genetic research presentations that go spectacularly tits up, and both make villains of a stuffed-shirt project management type who, when all’s said and done, is only doing his job. Both share a pivotal moment where a non-human character’s rebellion is heralded by their startling and brutally succinct use of speech. But whereas ‘RotPotA’ sides unequivocally with its genetically engineered simian, Vincenzo Natali’s thorny psychodrama walks a twisty and shadowy path of moral compromise and emotional ambiguity.
After an inventive (if protracted) sequence wherein the camera glides through some kind of protean interior, picking out the opening credits as if they were an organic part of this as-yet-unrevealed being, a scene of birth – from the embryo’s POV – sets the tone. Birth, parenthood, relationship power plays and sexual neuroses simmer away in virtually every scene for the next 100 minutes.
Under the sponsorship of a pharmaceutical corporation, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) – the co-owners of the Nucleic Exchange Research & Development facility, and also partners in the romantic sense – are developing artificial life-forms designed to yield medicinal proteins. They have enjoyed unparalleled success in splicing DNA from various animals, and their paymasters are delighted. (The firm’s name, or at least its acronym, is the film’s clunkiest joke. Calling its protagonists Clive and Elsa is its cleverest.)
Elsa is keen to further their research beyond the corporation’s remit and attempt to introduce human DNA into the splice. Clive is initially hesitant, but curiosity gets the better of him. He and Elsa use various samples, but the experiment repeatedly fails. Then Elsa introduces a new sample – unbeknownst to Clive, at this point anyway – it’s her own DNA, and the desired results are achieved. The downside is that Clive and Elsa now have a highly energetic mutant creature on their hands which is maturing through a ludicrously accelerated lifestyle. They call the creature Dren. (Check out that acronym again if you’re wondering why.)
With Dren increasingly difficult to keep under wraps at the lab, they relocate her to a remote farmhouse and all but give up on the day job. Yes, Dren is a she. It’s difficult to tell at first, with Dren resembling an outtake from ‘Alien’. Pretty soon, the resemblance is more akin to a little girl with the facial grooves of a cenobite and the ambulatory capacity of a velociraptor. And not long after that, she’s all grown up, still somewhat reptilian but disturbingly seductive.
Played in her younger iteration by Abigail Chu and as an adult by Delphine Chaneac, Dren is a mesmerising and unpredictable character, achingly vulnerable in the early stages of her development, darkly sexual later, and – finally – dangerous when the repercussions of playing God catch up with Clive and Elsa. Natali veers awfully close to overplaying his hand here, doling out the transgressors’ punishment with a zealous sense of Old Testament nastiness. He’s not exactly subtle elsewhere, with a couple of lab-based montages coming across more like MTV videos than scenes of scientific discovery, and much of the dialogue clunkily expository rather than naturalistic.
But Natali gets a lot more right than he gets wrong. ‘Splice’ neatly marries (or should I say grafts) its Frankenstein/artificial life concept with an almost mythological approach to its unworldly protagonist, so that Dren is variously angel, demon, siren and creature from the id. In doing so, Natali keeps throwing out ideas right up to the finale; I’ll leave it to other reviewers to say whether he over eggs the