Reviewed by Robert Cashill

Produced by Steve Hoban and Guillermo Del Toro; directed by Vincenzo Natali; screenplay by Natali, Doug Taylor, and Antoinette Terry Bryant; cinematography by Tetsuo Nagata; production design by Todd Cherniawsky; costumes by Alex Kavanagh; editing by Michele Conroy; music by Cyrille Aufort; starring Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chanéac, Abigail Chu, David Hewlett, Brandon McGibbon, and Simona Maicanescu. Color, 104 mins. A Warner Bros. release.

Splice is an apt title for a movie that hybridizes horror, sci-fi, social commentary, ethical dilemmas, and family psychodrama. Genre movies are recombinant organisms these days, built from what’s out there, and the chromosomes of this one include the Universal Frankensteins (hip geneticists named “Clive” and “Elsa,” for openers), the films of David Cronenberg (skin-crawling subject matter plus wintry, anonymous, filmed-in-Canada locations), and 1995’s Species, where alien and human DNA are combined and form a runway-ready monster that’s on the make for the perfect mate. But Splice is more than the sum of its spare parts.

From animal DNA, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) have spawned “Fred” and “Ginger,” docile blob-like creatures from which life-saving, and lucrative, proteins can potentially be harvested. That’s enough to satisfy their backer, the stony Joan Morot (Simona Maicanescu), who has her toady, William Barlow (David Hewlett), halt their experiments and order them to follow the money. But Elsa in particular chafes under the corporate bridle and continues to push against scientific and moral norms, adding a special ingredient to the mix that results in a humanoid creature that she and a more reluctant Clive rear in secret. Parenting, however, proves far more complicated than conception and birth, as the multifaceted “Dren” grows and flexes her powers, and libido. In a seamless transition Dren is played by the delicate Abigail Chu as a child, the graceful Delphine Chanéac as an adult, and a bundle of eye-popping makeup and digital effects.

In the best tradition of movie monsters, Dren is unpredictable but not unsympathetic. She needs to defend herself, not against the world at large but to fend off parent figures who are themselves grown-up children, brilliant, coddled, and insecure. Clive and Elsa, a couple who have decided to forego children, have issues. Clive, jealous of the attention that Elsa lavishes on her creation, tries to drown Dren when she misbehaves, which in a clever twist reveals her amphibious lungs. Elsa, who has claimed Dren as her property (her name is the name of their company, NERD, spelled backwards), is upset when the maturing creature shows Clive greater affection, drawing pictures of him and not her, a scenario that had parents in the audience chuckling in recognition. “All our baby books end as you leave the hospital,” I remember my wife and I groaning after we hit the wall with our daughter sometime in her first week. This morbidly funny slice of Splice is its strongest section, a splendidly acted take on bringing up baby in all its befuddlement, exasperation, panic, and amazement.

Splice is a looser, gooier thing than Cronenberg’s claustrophobically structured films. Best known for his no-budget puzzler Cube (1997), director and cowriter Vincenzo Natali picks up ideas, toys with them awhile, then moves on to the next concept, sometimes to its detriment. After a public unveiling of Fred and Ginger goes spectacularly wrong it makes no sense that the publicity-conscious Clive and Elsa could just disappear with Dren, least of all to Elsa’s hated family home in the woods. Here she was neglected and abused by her mother, a too-convenient explanation of her behavior toward her child-creation designed to win her a little sympathy. This nips at Polley’s performance, which is strongest when Elsa is at her most bullheaded… but it’s just a bite, as the movie doesn’t explore the notion of bad parents begetting bad parents, like, say, Cronenberg’s early masterpiece The Brood (1979). Instead, as if to fulfill a genre quota, Splice chugs along to a third act that dwindles into mayhem, positioning Dren as a monster of propagation-cum-avenging angel and racking up an unnecessary body count.

Still, a movie that exhausts itself on compelling themes is a rare beast, and the final headlong rush doesn’t compromise that tremendous midsection, or one of the strangest, ickiest seductions ever. Brody is at his best muddled by the needs of the women in his life, and that aspect of Splice pays off strongly in its coda. Men, the film states, are easily disposable, with women destined—or cursed—to take the first fateful steps into our re-evolution. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) prophesied a new world of gods and monsters, and Splice implies that this will come to pass, as a matriarchy.

Robert Cashill is a Cineaste Associate and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.