Splice is a primarily science-fiction film released in 2009 that also encompasses elements of the horror and thriller genres. It’s one of few films from director Vincenzo Natali who is best known for low-budget cult favourite Cube back in 1997.
Natali hasn’t done a great deal since breakthrough film Cube all those years ago, but for this he manages to get both Adrien Brody (The Pianist) and Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) on board as star and executive producer respectively. The problem is that these names bring amount a certain amount of expectation and, despite my dampened and diminished hopes due to a mixed reaction of reviews (settling as average-to-poor generally), it still disappoints somewhat.
It’s therefore tempting to suggest that the increase into star power territory – be it off- or on-screen – perhaps proves too much to handle for Natali. I’m far from convinced that this is actually the case, although it must be said that the usually-reliable Brody turns in one of his more unsure and unconvincing performances.
The premise of Splice is touched upon in eons of science-fiction films: every decade since the start of cinema up to the 21st century has asked, as Splice does here, the question “what happens when man meddles with science?” It’s particularly concerned with doing too much too fast in the context of scientific “advancements” – a very un-scientific approach in and of itself. One of the most notable examples is Jurassic Park, and the idea is also very much a part of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, demonstrating the premise’s reach beyond sci-fi alone.
Splice sees genetic engineers Clive (Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) taking their DNA advancements and medical experiments to the next level in secret, culminating in the disgusting birth of animal-cum-human-cum-clone-cum-alien creature known as Dren (‘Nerd’ spelled backwards – don’t get me started). It has to be said that for every bit of uncomfortable viewing Brody provides, Polley takes it a notch further each time. This is partly down to her maniacal, exaggerated performance but also due to the difficult card she’s been dealt in the form of her inconsistent and unbelievable character, Elsa.
Elsa turns from devoted yet risk-taking scientist to fanatical mother in an unconvincing turn which takes up the first half of the film and instead could – if played right – have been the overarching theme throughout. Instead the film changes tracks just after halfway and begins along a completely different Greek-tragedy-like plot. This issue sums up its failings quite nicely: it doesn’t know whether to come or go and only serves up the question as to whether those behind-the-scenes were capable of stretching out any one of their good ideas over a feature-length period.
For the truth is that there are a lot of fairly interesting themes below the surface. But whilst they threaten to bubble up onto it, they’re never really given the opportunity to do so. In particular there are questions surrounding gender and the nature of it (plus gender/sex distinctions, etc.) but again, it’s hinted at during the course of the film instead of tackled head-on; or at least given more prominence despite the various opportunities to do so. It’s these indirect clues that help any non-Cube fans to realise that there is a skilled director in control (or not quite so, as the case may be), even though they aren’t quite brought out with any real expertise.
Towards the end of the film the characters find themselves in considerably more trouble than they bargained for, but why should any of us care? I certainly didn’t. Elsa and Clive get themselves into a mess by dancing with the dog of death and then appear shocked when it starts to get hungry. Despite being incredibly different entities, it falls into an Eraserhead category where, quite frankly, I’d happily see the gruesome little beasts eaten or crushed or killed in any alternative manner considering their faults and lack of eagerness to attend to them. It’s a film where you root for pretty much no-one.
The truth is that the odd set-piece isn’t enough to capture my wavering attention despite the best efforts of these shocks or moments of gore which aren’t half-bad. They are a little weird and disturbing which actually suits the atmosphere pretty well, and Dren – name aside – is a fairly memorable character too. Unfortunately the scientist duo act like cardboard, and despite the make-believe closure offered by the ending, it only serves to highlight what potential there was once upon a time in this script and idea.
Splice has a stick-or-twist problem which it becoming riddled by over and over again, and it never gets close to answering this question. On the plus side, one scene did teach me that “outside” and “tedious” are anagrams of each other, so it’s not all bad.