Vincenzo Natali, whose most notable film before Splice is 1997’s Cube, co-wrote and directed this modern-day mad-scientist fable. Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play the two Frankensteinian scientists whose research and experiments in multi-species gene splicing have kept their relationship from progressing to the marriage and kids phase. When their operations are shut down, they continue in secret with the next-logical step. After successfully creating two squirming, cat-sized, tongue-like skin bags from the genes of various animal species, they must next, naturally, add human to the mix.
What results is a human/animal hybrid that should find its place in the pantheon of creepy movie babies, alongside Rosemary’s baby and the thing from It’s Alive. As Elsa and Clive raise the product of their unholy union, they watch their creation grow and mutate into something wholly unsettling and original. But what makes this movie stand apart from the typical sci-fi horror fare is how their test-tube terror affects their relationship in very real and recognizable ways. The film shifts seamlessly from timely scientific politics to timeless familial themes. They become loving parents, eventually naming her Dren, and go through the rigors and rewards of raising a (somewhat) human daughter, from the horrors of feeding, to illness, to puberty. In the process, Elsa and Clive are driven to committing truly atrocious acts neither of them thought they were capable of, made all the more disturbing and ambiguous by the simultaneously human and pet-like qualities of Dren.
Credit is certainly due to the otherworldly physicality of the actors playing child and adult Dren. As Dren matures, her human characteristics outshine her animal genes, but the illusion is never lost that she is something different than either. She chirps and twitches, she can’t speak, and the subtle effect of slightly-too-wide-set eyes serves as a constant reminder of her utter uniqueness.
However, the film is not without imperfections. Supporting characters, specifically Clive’s fellow-scientist and brother, never evolve beyond their function of plot progression, and the import of Elsa’s backstory isn’t as explicit as it could be. This doesn’t detract from the overall creepy spell Splice casts on the viewer though. It’s rumored Natali is on board to direct the adaptation of William Gibson’s cyber-punk classic Neuromancer, and if Splice is any indication of his abilities, it could be one adaptation where the A-word isn’t a pejorative.