It seems fitting that just a few weeks after it was disclosed that humankind has successfully synthesized DNA, a nightmare version of this scientific breakthrough is unleashed on audiences in Vincenzo Natali's Splice. Equally thought-provoking and horrific in its imagery and the ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter, the picture is smart sci-fi that's not afraid to flirt with taboos while still existing enough on a B-movie playing field to satisfy the genre crowd. There's no doubt that some will dismiss it as another Species-style sci-fi B-movie, yet those who seek it out will find that there's more to this monster yarn than just the sex horror parallels.
The tale is told through the eyes of Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), two genetic engineers whose work is unparalleled in their field. After successfully making a new slug-like organism, the couple secretly defies the orders of their superiors in order to take genetic modification to the next level -- by making a hybrid human/animal synthetic being. The result of their haphazard experiment is Dren, a female humanoid whose staggeringly fast growth rate puts the scientists in the curious position of having to nurture this mutation as if it were their own child. Neither is prepared, however, for what happens when this innocent creature matures and lays waste to what they thought were their moral boundaries.
Just as executive producer Guillermo del Toro finds exquisiteness in even the darkest of places, so does Natali present his all-too-real genetic creation as a radiant beauty whose vulnerability tests the sympathies of its audience just as much as its lead characters. The director, who hit the scene in 1997 with the low-budget shocker Cube, proves to be quite a visual virtuoso with this production. His adept usage of photorealistic effects sells Dren in such a way that many will forget just how much artistry was needed to bring her to life. The filmmaker is also given points for not shying away from some of the more illicit imagery, which the picture delivers with gusto.
The two leads do a fine job with the material. The characters are fleshed out just enough for genre standards, but become more interesting as the film goes on, with each one shifting allegiance to the grave mistake they've unleashed on the world. One plot thread dealing with Elsa's backstory could have very well been larger in a different cut (the version shown at Sundance featured a longer running time), but in its own way, it's refreshing not to have it interfere with the final product. Special nods go out to Delphine Chanéac for her portrayal of Dren, whose arresting performance gives a unique spin on the Frankenstein mythos. Splice doesn't change the face of horror, nor does it usher in a new technology unknown to viewers, yet it is definitely a picture that's hard to forget. And despite some of its brainy underlying themes, it knows what gears it needs to hit to leave a monster-movie fan thoroughly weirded out and entertained.