Friday, June 04, 2010
Splice, cowritten and directed by Vincenzo Natali, has been marketed as a horror movie. We all know Hollywood's habit of trying to fit films into predetermined genres; studio careers are made by the ability to fool enough of the people on opening weekend. There is more than enough going on in Splice to make a discussion of marketing a tangent. Although it turns to horror in its last act, Natali manages to make the buildup a unusual blend of satire, love story, and unnerving riff on the anxieties of parenthood.
Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are young biochemists in love who in the opening moments of Splice succeed in synthesizing a new life form (which resembles a pulsating brain) for the purpose of harvesting disease-curing proteins. I'm not sure if we have seen scientists like Clive and Elsa before, their careers are controlled by a giant pharmaceutical company and their high profile (Do biochemists really get on the cover of Wired?) has gone to their heads. The opening scenes of Splice are nervous and played almost too fast on purpose. Clive and Elsa, whose bosses want to take their research in a different direction, are forced to be be hucksters for their livelihoods. It's almost as if the movie wants to convince us that their work is important at the same time Elsa is convincing Clive to try splicing human DNA into their creation. The result is Dren (played by Delphine Chaneac and Abigail Chu at different ages), a too-pretty creature whose legs seem to come from one of those small dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. The rest of Splice is what happens as Clive's weakness and Elsa's repressed maternal instincts allow their creation to spin out of control.
Sarah Polley has made her name in brainier fare like The Sweet Hereafter and her directorial debut Away From Her. Elsa is the power in this couple and Polley's haughtiness is ideal for this woman who has absolutely convinced herself her actions are right and necessary. Polley's performance gets more interesting as the reasons for Elsa's behavior become clear; the cracks in Elsa's veneer of professionalism are heartbreakingly detailed. (Polley pulls off the neat trick of becoming scarier the calmer she gets.) Adrien Brody admirably plays a man ruled by his ambitions and lower desires. Splice won't be scary enough for some horror junkies, but it's the way that Clive and Elsa feed on each other's weaknesses that's the real scary story. I became less interested in Splice the more it resembled a conventional horror movie, but I won't forget the ways Natali makes Clive and Elsa's lab a menacing place (low camera angles and lots of monitors) or how the movie calls Clive and Elsa on their hubris. There's a darkly hilarious press conference scene in which the consequences of the two's obsession with Dren are played out, and an ill-timed lab tryst early on is paid off later in a scene more believable than it should have been. The villain in Splice isn't science, but rather corporate-controlled science in which bureaucrats call the shots. Don't miss it; it's smarter than standard summer fare without working nearly as hard.