Bizarre genius. Those two words may best describe Vincenzo Natali’s decade-in-the-making Frankenstein update, Splice, an imperfect movie executed with the exact amount of gusto needed to transcend its own inadequacies. Make no mistake, Splice is flawed, but those aspects that underwhelm never impede the film from being thoughtful and satisfying in all of its weird, deranged glory. Natali’s willingness to go the distance with his themes and concepts does a great service to his film; it’s refreshing to see a director wander off the beaten path and tread new ground instead of sticking with the obvious.
Splice puts Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley in the roles of a geneticist couple (who, by the way, are totally awesome, man— you can tell because the dress like hipsters and listen to industrial metal and jazz alike in their lab) who take a risk and play god without the knowledge of the company backing them. Having seen success in creating their own life forms, two slugs named Fred and Ginger that we’re told are essentially walking pharmacies that dispense miracle drugs, Clive (Brody) and Elsa (Polley) pull an Emeril Lagasse and make in secret a new creature spliced together with both animal and human DNA. The creature– affectionately called Dren (Delphine Chanéac)– starts off as a giant, living stinger, and develops rapidly over time before growing into an unnervingly alluring humanoid female monster.
Of course, as the unprepared parents struggle to properly raise this unexpected child, things quickly spiral out of control as Dren evolves in unexpected ways and both Clive and Elsa clash with one another. But that’s only natural in a film that serves as a metaphor for child rearing.
Natali’s decision to stray away from the conventional and embrace the gonzo keeps his film feeling invigorating and even bold; this is a genre film unafraid to dive head first into truly uncomfortable territory, which places Splice in a unique position amongst other modern genre films that keep things simple and often coated in varying hues of red. Splice isn’t interested in churning stomachs through portrayals of graphic, over the top violence. Instead, its foremost interest is in exploring its central themes of parenthood and child development, and all of the film’s dread and tension derives organically from that pursuit. Natali doesn’t have to use cheap tricks to cause his audience discomfort, and he knows it; in point of fact, he revels in it.
At the same time, Natali clearly has a love and appreciation for the prototypical characteristics associated with creature features and monster movies. That passion helps shape the pace and tension of the film’s last act, and while the shift in gears creates an incongruity between the climax and the two acts preceding it– in that the ending embodies those genre tropes which the rest of the film eschews– Natali is clever enough to build up to that tonal contrast so that when it occurs, it does so organically based on the events that have unfolded throughout the rest of his film.
Besides, I’d rather watch a treatment of those elements from a director of Natali’s skill than sit through another artist fumbling with those same tendencies. If I found the decision to walk away from its more deviant proclivities to be disappointing, I can also honestly say that the stock monster movie moments delighted me rather than offended me.
Natali’s sensibilities as a director aside, Splice benefits enormously from its three central performances. Brody and Polley anchor the film as their rock star scientists find themselves wholly unequipped to raise Dren from childhood to adulthood. Natali’s script (co-written along with Doug Taylor and Antoinette Terry Bryant) has Clive and Elsa both undergo extensive developments of their own throughout the story, requiring Brody and Polley to give very different performances as the story progresses. As the father in the relationship, we actually understand why Brody is intimidating to a younger Dren not just through his actions (he’s staunchly opposed to the idea of creating Dren, much less raising her) but through his use of expression and his mannerisms. Tall, lanky, and immediately identified for his melancholy charm, Brody takes Clive into dark waters as he struggles to reconcile his fate as the reluctant paternal figure to Dren; as Clive takes actions I didn’t think him capable of, so too does Brody produce a performance that I didn’t know he could deliver.
Dren ages and the parent-child dynamics reverse; Clive becomes the favored parent and Brody changes his tune accordingly, and he’s shown in a light that feels more familiar for his personality. At the same time, Elsa has become Dren’s competition for her father’s affections (as so is often the case in mother-daughter relationships), going from doting and loving mother to rival. Polley does splendidly handling both sides of the role; she exudes tender, nurturing warmth as she cares for Dren in her younger evolutionary stages, and accepts Dren as a sentient being in ways that Clive simply doesn’t at the start of things. (It’s Elsa who decides that Dren needs a name.) When time passes and Elsa finds herself at odds with her foster daughter, Polley reminds us with cold and calculated speech that Elsa is still a scientist at her core. Like Brody, Polley becomes monstrous in ways previously unimaginable for the actress. Individually, the performances are strong, but placed together they form a powerful emotional core upon which Splice‘s themes mature.
But maybe greater than both of them is French actress Delphine Chanéac, stepping into the role of the living experiment caught in between Brody’s and Polley’s conflicts. Put in no uncertain terms, Dren is kind of amazing. Splice‘s FX team made the wise– and innovative– choice to employ delicate CGI work to Chanéac’s face. Instead of downloading her into a computer and retranslating her into pixels from head to toe, they use their own skill and nuance to quietly make fabrications to her face. Chanéac is allowed to perform unhindered by the limitations of technology like motion capture, and at the same time Natali and his crew present a realistic monster that’s noticeably altered without those alterations sticking out in a way that ruins the effect, and the result of that marriage is utterly marvelous. Chanéac gives Dren humanity enough to make the poor creature sympathetic, but never lets us forget that underneath all of that humanity lies animal behavior and bestial instinct. (Or is it vice versa?) Chanéac very easily could have taken her performance too far in one direction or the other, and instead she strikes a perfect balance between both sides of Dren’s character.
All of this said, Splice is by no means a movie without its mistakes and errors. One convention of genre horror that Natali should have felt more comfortable letting go of are the staple idiotic choices made by characters who appear to be stricken with the sudden loss of their logical thought processes. With a little more fine-tuning these grievous little moments of foolishness could have been trimmed from the picture entirely, but their presence doesn’t do much more than provide inconsequential hurdles for Splice‘s story and cast to effortlessly vault over. As contemporary genre filmmaking, Splice is a real winner, original and daring; any fan of monster movies should make sure to check it out as soon as possible.