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We already know that there are few original sci-fi or horror films being made. So much ground has been covered in either genre over the years that coming up with any new angle can prove to be quite the challenge. Yet last year, exceptions like Moon, District 9 and Pandorum delivered a fresh look at some familiar conventions of the sci-fi/horror genre without the label of remakes, prequels or sequels slapped on them.

Splice is another film of that genre that steers clear of such labels as it made its way around the festival circuit last fall before making it to Sundance this past January. It clearly has early David Cronenberg and Hammer Horror influences, but for all its ambition can’t quite compare to those other three films.

The story involves two scientists and lovers, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), who have reached a certain level of fame in their field. At their research lab, Nucleic Exchange Research and Development, or N.E.R.D., they’ve created freaky, slug-like hybrids named Fred and Ginger, by splicing animal DNA. The corporation that owns N.E.R.D see these two creatures as a goldmine opportunity, using their proteins as potential cures for various diseases. Now, we know from previous mad scientist-type films that it’s never about money and always about that temptation to follow through with that forbidden “breakthrough”. In this case, that would be combining human and animal DNA for a roll-of-the-dice result.

Invoking Biblical Eve, impetuous Elsa takes that extra step toward god-like power and, in a move unbeknownst to Clive, has a human ovum readied for splicing. After initial protest from Clive, the two agree to embark on their covert artificial birth and soon enough….their “child” is born. Elsa is the first to encounter this little mole rat-looking science freak with a penchant for tic-tacs.

The winged creature soon grows into toddler sized (played by Abigail Chu) and she and Elsa develop a creepy yet cute bond. Elsa names her Dren and comes to see her as less of a project and more of an offspring, as Clive cautiously witnesses. She can spell out words yet her communication is limited to a variety of chirps, whistles and howls. Like any child, Dren lashes out in tantrums when she is frustrated, so play nice or you’ll meet the business end of her tail.

Dren grows exponentially, making it difficult for the two geneticists to conceal her existence from their superiors. Elsa also grows exponentially, protective that is, while Clive grows increasingly unsure with her intentions. Meanwhile, Dren has breezed past puberty and has now become a most curious young, er, woman (played superbly by Delphine Chaneac). Watch out for any hormonal imbalance since Dren can lash out with her superior strength and animal instinct.

Once Dren is moved into an old country barn where Elsa grew up she starts acting out against her maternal creator and is drawn uncomfortably closer to Clive. She develops an awareness on many levels, coming to understand the limits she has been given, her violent potential, and an inevitable sense of sensual discovery. Clearly, Clive and Elsa had no clue what they would be creating, much less experiencing.

A film like this relies heavily on how believable the creature is, both visually and in characterization. This is where the film really succeeds. There’s some top-notch talent in the CGI department bringing to life a creature that seamlessly interacts with humans and the environment around it. Natali and special effects makeup artists Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger carefully balance Dren’s introduction to the audience by creating mystery and empathy for the character despite its deadly tendencies.

That’s no small task, but the bigger one is injecting a sense of humanity to the role, something French actress Chaneac does in spades. Amid the awkward physicality of the role, Chaneac conveys an emotional resonance through various tics and expressions, providing a noticeable sense of internal conflict to the character.

While it is splendidly shot and will satisfy the curiosity of an audience, the dialogue and story dwindles as the film progresses. Eventually, the two scientists begin to behave uncharacteristically bizarre. Some of that is expected given the story’s situations; one plot device with Elsa is a valid red herring but nothing can justify Clive’s descent into a shameless carnal act.

In addition to the asinine actions, there is also some really lazy dialogue toward the end. Polley actually blurts the groan-inducing line, “I don’t even know who you are anymore!” in one of her many outbursts at Clive. It’s difficult to see such capable and brave actors as Polley and Brody endure material that starts out quite riveting yet falls into this sexually bizarre, gender-crossing finale. Both actors carry on as best they can as the tone of the film falls into formulaic horror trappings, leaving behind the thought-provoking morality questions the film had maintained.

Backed by producer Guillermo del Toro, this could be the biggest opening for Natali yet. I give him credit, for the film could’ve easily been another Species. Instead we get quite one trippy ride.

Well, at least until the final quarter of the film when everything that is supposed to be disturbing and absurd winds up just silly and lazy. I’d recommend it for the die-hard fans of the genre that look forward to a fair amount of goo and blood with a dash of kink since sadly, all the intelligence the film started out with is not carried full term.

(This review also appears on David's own website, Keeping It Reel.)

David J. Fowlie

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