What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

Exploring the dark side of technology, Splice goes where no genome has gone before

Splice is a Canadian horror film. Or is that an oxymoron? So many Canadian flicks are, you know.

Purists will correct me and insist it’s a sci-fi film, but as it sets its course in the world of gene splicing and then shifts its focus from biochemical lab to monster-runs-amuck in deserted country house mode, crawling flesh seems an obvious goal. The thin plot of this creepy cautionary tale revolves around the grotesque possibilities of what can go wrong when naïve geniuses set out to prove it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Adrien Brody and Polley play romantically linked co-workers.

Clive (skinny, baggy-eyed-scarecrow oddball Adrien Brody) and Elsa (the excellent, award-winning Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who also directed Julie Christie in the acclaimed Alzheimer-themed film Away From Her) are two romantically involved, brilliant, but unwisely ambitious career scientists employed by a pharmaceutical company to experiment with new forms of life. Together, working diligently through all hours of the night, they develop an amazing technique for splicing DNA from animals to create new hybrids of living creatures. Step one is completed when out of their hermetically sealed test tubes comes a female creature that revolutionizes science. They call her Dren (“nerd” spelled backward), but instead of mastering new technology to test disease-curing drugs that could change the world, they fall in love with their creation and “adopt” her as their own daughter, forming a sentimental attachment that proves fateful.

They have to hide Dren from the media, so they box up their “genome” and cart her to a deserted house in the woods replete with locked doors and her favorite food—gum drops, jelly beans and other assorted candy treats. Having successfully cloned a living, breathing creature out of animal chromosomes, they are now tempted to move on to step two—the illegal splicing of human DNA into the formula to create a human embryo, just to prove it can be done. But the medical facility considers their breakthrough in biotechnology so dangerous and unconventional that they draw the line, prohibiting their progress. Ah, whadda these eggheads know? They did the same thing to Frankenstein. And Dren does the same thing Karloff did to the Frankenstein lab—only worse.

Of course, things go gruesomely awry. The monster they created is a combination of a chicken, a kangaroo and Cameron Diaz. Dren also has unprecedented strength and super-human intelligence—not to mention the guiles of an estrogen-fueled woman in heat. Sprouting wings and crashing through skylights into the snowy night to feed on the blood of forest animals only intensifies Elsa’s maternal instinct, but watching a mix of femininity and biology go ballistic gives Clive an erection. When Dren discovers lipstick, look out. Clive gets the orgasm of his scientific life. When Dren grows a poison stinger in the end of her tail and—are you ready?—changes genders, the terror mounts, the movie gets sillier, and Elsa is the one nailed to the mattress like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.

From the human experiments in various versions of The Island of Dr. Moreau to the unthinkable immoral intercourse in Demon Seed, the dark side of technology has been a constant lure for filmmakers, but except for showing a lot of imagination in the depiction of Dren, nothing in Vincenzo Natali’s direction or the morally ambivalent script he co-wrote with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor offers any new or startling insights. For genius bio-engineers, Elsa and Clive come off reckless and somewhat stupid. The movie doesn’t work, but the sets and CGI effects are fascinating, and the actors carry on like they’re in some kind of meaningful futuristic experience of lasting value. As the half-human, half-digital anatomical nightmare called Dren, credit must go to French actress Delphine Chanéac for making her seem real. As Elsa, Polley does her best to bring logic to the twisted ideologies of a brainy but ruthless scientist who is clueless about life.

Rex Reed is the film critic for the New York Observer.

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