REVIEW: Splice Blends High and Low In Terrific Horror Trip

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The first look we get at Clive and Elsa, the rock-and-roll gene cutters at the center of Splice, is from the perspective of the biogenetic blob they have just coaxed from its gloppy, synthetic womb. Their faces are eager and expectant, shining beatifically but intently down on their latest creation: Welcome to the world! What can you do for me? Whether there's a place in that world for these not-found-in-nature experiments is hardly a concern -- "Fred," a partner for the already thriving "Ginger," was born in a lab and meant to stay there, a species created solely to host unique (human) life-saving proteins. That the new parents radiate total confidence in the wisdom of such activity -- even as they are watched in turn by their little monster -- is the first indication of what's in store.

Heady, creaturely, and looking for trouble, Splice is also a sovereign creation: Conceived and midwived by Vincenzo Natali (Cube), it suggests the pure-bred Canadian love child of James Cameron and Margaret Atwood (I see David Cronenberg presiding over the baptism). And yet it is the kind of film that, when mixed with a big, ideally boisterous audience, undergoes a further mutation and becomes fully itself -- a modern, capacious, totally squicked-out horror jam. Natali, who spent almost a decade developing the film, has achieved that rare, sought-after thing: a vision of an ethically compromised near-future just possible enough to engross both intellectually and emotionally and outrageous enough to engage suspension of disbelief.

With Fred in the clear and happily (i.e. grossly) bonding with his mate, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are anxious to take the next step -- adding human DNA to their primordial cocktails. Their pharmaceutical overlords want them to work the data they already have, or "spend the next five years picking through pig shit," as Elsa puts it. In a moment of hot-shot hubris, they decide to do it anyway -- or rather they sort of decide, and then Elsa forces the issue. Her investment in the move becomes clearer over time, and develops one of the film's most powerful and rewarding subtexts -- those of maternal instincts (comfortable and otherwise) and genetic legacy. A co-habitating couple avoiding the subject of personal procreation, they are clearly subsuming all sorts of issues into their clinical but often quite visceral work. "What's the worst that could happen?" Elsa asks, an unlikely question for a right-thinking, risk-calculating scientist.

The answer to that is parsed out in seductive increments, the first being the eruption of a fat, nasty little sperm-shaped whatsit from their amniotic vat. From that a bald, vaguely chickenish being emerges, and she becomes known as Dren (their lab's acronym, NERD, spelled backwards). Dren grows quickly, and Natali's effects team keeps mesmerizing pace, blending Dren's clefted skull, clawed feet, and hammerhead eyes seamlessly with the body of Abigail Chu (as child Dren) and then Delphine Chanéac. The derivation of Dren's animal DNA is unclear, which leaves her looking more like half-mythical beastie or alien than something recognizable; she is just human enough, however, to trip all sorts of wires in her guardians and open up the difficult issue of when a "specimen" moves under moral jurisdiction.

splice_rev_mid.jpg"When did you stop being a scientist?" Clive spits, sick of watching Elsa fuss over her charge, whom she puts in hand-me-down dresses and cradles like a child, and take emotionally fueled risks with their careers. "Imprinting," a mark of social and emotional cognizance, is something Elsa has marked in her subjects; counter-imprinting is something she didn't quite account for. Clive's accusations also get at a provocative question the film explores as Dren develops: Do her maternal impulses make Elsa a better scientist or a more unreliable one?

Natali is working with two of the best pairs of eyes in the business, and he knows it. Brody and Polley do much of their work in close up, reflecting in their faces the wonder, uncertainty, and finally anguish surrounding what they see. Often their mouths are better covered by face masks, lest they let loose with Natali's seriously drippy dialogue ("This is the disaster everyone warns about! A new species set loose in the world!"). At times it's hard to tell if such hokiness is all part of Natali's pseudo-B movie master plan, so seamlessly does he interweave his high-toned, psycho-intellectual overtures and delightfully schlocky, oh-no-he-did-not gutterballs. Sometimes, as in a sex scene that dare not spoil its name, the two effects manifest in the same moment.

Splice's endgame disrupts the cool but curious sense of dread Natali has built throughout this mordant, playful, and yet highly intelligent, emotionally acute film. Some will bridle at its descent into convention, as if the director felt compelled to enter horror's vestigial woods, add a callback twist, and rack up a tidy body count before he could sign off in good conscience. I came to accept it as part of this strange and awesome animal's nature. A mixture of the intimately known and the wildly unpredictable, this one just is what it is: a total trip.