by Tony Dayoub
Colin (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are new parents. Both workaholics run into the typical problems most couples do when first embarking on a trip into the world of child rearing: fatigue; frustration; ambivalence about whether they're equipped to handle the responsibility; emotional disruption of their own relationship. The unexpected conception of their baby only exarcebates these feelings, leading to tension since Colin has always been the one pushing Elsa to have a child. He later discovers Elsa's reluctance is reasonable, stemming from a fear she might follow in the footsteps of her own mentally unstable mother. Which explains why Elsa is prone not only to take refuge in their work together as superstars in the world of genetic engineering, but lapse into her 'all business' scientist persona at times of stress.
Oh, did I mention their "child," Dren (Delphine Chanéac), is a hybridized clone derived from animal and human genetic splicing?
Splice, directed by Vincenzo Natali (Cube), is a throwback to the kind of science fiction films you rarely see anymore, the ones that warn us not to play in God's domain lest you incur severe consequences. It is no coincidence then that its protagonists' names are an homage to two lead actors from a cinematic forerunner, 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein (for further links to film history visit Jim Emerson's blog Scanners where he catalogues a wealth of sources). Rather than fashion a derivative retread of Bride, one which would again rely exclusively on the tired trope forming its premise, Natali uses the film as a starting point for exploring the fear associated with raising a child.
Like in the best examples of its genre Splice asks its questions by employing allegory—sometimes a bit too heavyhandedly. The early scene where Colin and Elsa try to force feed veggies to the chicken/slug-like Dren with a baster predictably ends with the young creature "spitting up" to the delight of moviegoers who have experienced the same with their own children. And sometimes the dialogue hits like a sledgehammer on the ears; the exchange between Colin and Elsa as they realize they haven't fooled around since Dren was born is one of these instances: "It's been a while, hasn't it?" "The exhaustion just catches up with you..." yadda-yadda, or something to that effect. But Splice's sly sense of humor is evocative of the same in Cronenberg's "body horror" films, movies which truly use the levity as comic relief to distance the viewer from the upsetting nature of the story until one is viewing it with an almost clinical detachment. And the humor-horror mashup is a longstanding tradition in cinema (I refer you again to the nearly 80-year-old Bride of Frankenstein).
At times seriously disturbing, Splice is unafraid to venture even into taboo sexual territory to explore some of the stranger moral questions which often go unmentioned in the parental arena. Colin's desire for a child transforms into dread when faced with the actual responsibilty over this surrogate. But the compressed space of time in which this repulsive mewling slug metamorphoses into an enchanting siren, along with his growing disgust with his girlfriend's ethical callousness, provokes Colin to view Dren in an alarmingly erotic light. This horrific eroticism hybridizes incest and bestiality the same way the film splices together different cinematic genre staples to come up with something entirely new.
What one ends up with in Splice is a film both weird and lovely, apropos of the seductive yet horrifying creature at its center. French actress Delphine Chanéac's performance as Dren reminds me of the mime-like performance of Kathryn Hays in the original Star Trek's "The Empath," a rare graceful note which elicits sympathy from its audience amidst some unsual sadism being inflicted on that show's cast of characters. In Splice, you get the same effect. Dren can be frightening, but she is more of an innocent victim at the mercy of primal instincts not even her creators are full capable of understanding. The true monsters are Colin and Elsa who exploit her to fulfill their own emotional and intellectual deficiencies.
Granted, Splice has its flaws, its most prominent being a portentuous predicatability in the last act of the film. However, in a summer which has proven to be even less innovative than in years past, Splice emerges as a serious contender for recognition at the end of the year.