An even more modern Prometheus

15 • 104 mins • 23 July 2010
Distributor: Optimum
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Cast: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chanéac, Brandon McGibbon

The phrase “jumping the shark” doesn’t really apply to films, but there’s a moment in Splice that deserves the description. It’s certainly a watershed moment. The film spends three quarters of its running time desperately – and largely successfully – fighting against being the kind of film you expect it to be, before becoming exactly the kind of film you expect it to be…

Because you’re expecting Species, right? That 1995 film (a kind of horror version of A For Andromeda) in which scientists build a sexually-rampant killer alien from instructions they’ve received from Planet IKEA. Basically, the film spends a few scenes creating the alien, Eve, before she goes on a bloody spree of death, destruction and bonking.

Splice sounds similar, though this time there’s more a Frankenstein vibe. It’s a cautionary tale of scientific hubris. Two geneticists (also partners) – Clive Nicoli (Brody) and Elsa Kast (Polley) – are working on a project to create new lifeforms from which various drugs can be extracted. So far they’ve only used animal genes to create two sluggy blobs called Ginger and Fred. They want to go further and create a human hybrid, but their sponsors refuse (they argue it’s for ethical reasons, though the inference is it may be more a financial decision, or at least a PR one).

But being geniuses, Clive and Elsa (spot the Universal horror reference?) cannot resist creating the genetic equivalent of a nuclear bomb, and go ahead in secret. After a few false starts they (metaphorically, in more ways than one) give birth to Dren. That’s NERD backwards, NERD being the name of their research company (Nucleic Exchange Research and Development – Gerry Anderson would have been proud of that one). She rapidly grows from a kind of cute plucked chicken into the impossibly cute Delphine Chanéac with CGed wonky legs (you will believe a woman with backwards knees can be sexy).

And so, of course, she immediately escapes and goes on a bloody spree of death, destructions and bonking…

Er, well no, actually. It does happen (although the bonking comes before the killing), but not for a long while. Until then, the film is a surprisingly intelligent and cliché-free examination of scientific ethics, reminiscent of Cronenberg movies from the mid-’80s, helped no end by compelling performances from Brody and Polley. There’s also an intriguing plot strand about Polley‘s childhood which is woven into the narrative to explain her compulsion to create Dren. Neither scientist is portrayed in black and white terms; your sympathies swing from one to the other (or away from both, at some points) throughout the film.

Delphine Chanéac is utterly adorable as Dren, with her birdlike movements and childlike nature. There’s some annoying lack of consistency about her learning abilities (she can spell out complex sentences, yet cannot seem to communicate – huh?) but she’s certainly a memorable and moving cinematic creation, visually stunning and totally believable (well, until the shark-jumping moment, anyway…). A dance scene she shares with Clive in a barn is one of the movie’s highlights, both in terms of FX and emotional clout.

The support characters are more sketchy, rarely more than cyphers to push the plot along. Here’s Mrs Big Corporation Boss moaning about funding. Here’s Mr Middle Management, arselicking Big Boss, and with “VICTIM” tattooed on his forehead. Luckily the central trio are strong enough to hold your attention, and if you’re worried it all sounds a bit talky and low on gore, there’s a press conference scene that deserves to go down in horror movie history…

Then things get delightfully perverse, before suddenly the film goes off the rails for its final act. This is when it descends into Species mode, not gradually but with a wrenching gear change. As far as Species-style horror goes, it’s serviceable enough action/gore fare, but it just seems a shame to end such a promising film on such a hokey, unsubtle, crass note. There’s even a final twist so predictably cheesy you can’t help but wince when the reveal happens.

Ultimately, there’s more in Splice to like than to loathe. Its DNA thankfully owes more to Mary Shelley, Fred Hoyle and David Cronenberg than it does to B-movies. But there‘s little denying that somewhere along the line, a little bit of Uwe Boll got spliced into the mix.

Dave Golder