Nominally a witty, unsettling, eccentric take on the mad scientist and monster movie, Splice finishes up being just as an ungainly and unstable a crossbreed as the obscenities central characters Clive and Elsa concoct in their genetic research laboratory. Employees of a company whose name contracts to the acronym NERD, Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) are partners both professionally and personally, and are being pushed by their corporate taskmasters to produce a commercially lucrative enzyme through creating creatures that generate it naturally within their bodies. To this end they’ve synthesised two grotesque yet weirdly cute dog-sized ameboids they dub Fred and Ginger, and Elsa, ebullient with the promise of wealth and acclaim, tinker with creating a new chimera that includes human DNA, supposedly for the sake of proving they can and to stabilise their formula. But Elsa charges ahead, ignoring Clive’s anxious protests, and starts the process of turning their few spliced genes into a living, growing creature. The embryo develops at a startling rate and erupts from its mechanical womb much earlier than anticipated. The bizarre new beast, which looks at first like a combination of rabbit and kangaroo, begins to grow quickly into something close, in features and temperament, to a human, but which possesses a number of amazing traits, like wings that sprout from its body, and a long tail with a poisonous spine at the tip.
But the new baby’s most potentially amazing and destructive characteristics are its human qualities, as she grows into something similar to a young female adolescent (embodied by Delphine Chanéac). To hide her from the prying eyes around the NERD labs, Clive and Elsa eventually move her into the barn of Elsa’s old, long-abandoned family farm. Elsa adopts this creature, whom she dubs Dren, being NERD backwards of course, as a kind of surrogate child, and begins living out through her a long suppressed psychodrama relating to her own disturbed upbringing and her family's congenital mental instability. Clive is ineffectual in trying to keep checks on Elsa’s whims and enforcing the experiment’s parameters, and finds himself weirdly attracted to Dren when she reaches maturity, realising that the human DNA that Elsa put into Dren was her own. When Ginger and Fred are displayed to a shareholders’ meeting, an unfortunately recurring instability in Clive and Elsa’s projects – the spontaneous transformations of females into males – sees the two creatures, which were happily mated, now destroy each other, splattering blood all over the ritzy onlookers. This genetic timebomb also proves to be ticking within Dren.
Director Vincenzo Natali, who co-wrote the script with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor, fills Splice with ideas that are almost overburdened with potential. Whilst the story is on the surface a Cronenberg-esque tale of nature-warping and body-horror, the actual plot development and satirical undercurrent is focused less on the ethics of modern science and limits of humanity than on ridiculing new-age parenting and couplehood. The efforts of the two nerds who try to escape, and yet still vicariously indulge in, the traditional responsibilities and affectations of being grown-ups engaged in parenting, are the real meat of the mockery. Introduced as a superficially model modern young couple, working together, living together, and sleeping together with equal, mutually fulfilling pleasure without any of the old family forms and burdens of child-rearing in their way yet, Clive and Elsa soon enough fall prey to the basic facts they’d like to ignore involving history and biology. Meanwhile, their creation experiences the usual travails of growing up, but at a hyperbolic rate, beset with a physique and capabilities beyond even her own comprehension, alternating fear and empathy with mischief and viciousness. Elsa is unfazed in her belief that Dren can be raised just like a young girl until Dren reaches the age at which she obeys Freudian principles, lashes out at Elsa, and transfers her affections to Clive, who responds with befuddled readiness to Dren as a budding young sexual being. Elsa’s icily offended efforts to re-establish power over Dren prompts her to drug and tie up Dren, and slice off her poisonous tail.
Metamorphosis and obedience to pre-existing genetic code is a notion obviously key to Splice’s plot and warped satire: some things, no matter how one tries to avoid them or rewrite them, are inevitable. But Splice, despite its attempts to be different, proves all too willing to mine the obvious and the cliche, without satisfyingly working its better notions out to any worthwhile end. As telling as Natali’s storyline should be in commenting on how we so easily repeat the mistakes of our parents, Splice never quite ceases feeling schematic, too wrapped up in its petty provocations. It’s never funny enough, dramatic enough, or emotional enough. Naming the company NERD is merely the commencement of a string of would-be clever touches that too often feel ponderously literal and undeveloped. Everything that happens in the film, from the NERD corporate overlords proving to be bullying profit-mongers above all other concerns, to Clive getting down and dirty with Dren, follows precepts laid down by dozens of other films: isn’t Clive’s guilty fling with Dren just another version of the slovenly male behaviour seen in recent “serious” films like An Education and Fish Tank? Natali tries to signal his off-kilter intent by interpolating playful musical references in defiant contrariness to the dark grain of the story, even giving Dren and Clive a moment together that’s clearly supposed to evoke any falling-in-love scene from any number of movies, in which they bond in dancing to jazz. But this finally feels like a rather glib piece of self-congratulatory quirk, considering he doesn’t then utilise the conventions of screen romance with anything other then coldly misanthropic intent. Elsa's turning into her sadistic control freak of a mother, and Clive becoming an avatar of crypto-incestuous passion for his wife’s younger, more exotic, more insistent simulacrum, are both notions the film threatens to explore and revel in with truly bad taste (which would be livelier), and then retreats from, as if deciding they’re blind alleys.
Once Elsa catches Clive rutting with Dren and he confronts her, both come to terms with their failures and misconceptions in a scene that tries to be cathartic but proves instead mystifyingly bad and a cheap cop-out from the plot strands already set in play. The gender commentaries are finally reductive, even groan-worthy: women are always broody and potentially domineering, men are perpetually randy and potentially belligerent. Splice pushes towards a finale which should be madcap and terrible in its horror and emotional violence, but instead offers some pretty ordinary monstrous shenanigans, with Dren developing into a creature which could spread some excellent mayhem, but which Natali seems to tire of very quickly. The hoped-for pathos of this consummation is completely lost, too, because Dren’s identity and empathetic streak disappear when she changes sexes, and because, well, by this time it’s impossible to feel anything for Clive and Elsa, who never seem to develop into actual characters worthy of pity or disdain. The suspicion that eventually one of them is going end up wedded to Dren rather than merely being a parent to him/her is both fulfilled yet dodged, with the final images that of Elsa, pregnant with Dren’s baby which she’s selling to NERD, an image that ought to pack great erotic and emotional force, and yet by then I couldn’t care less. The whole thing ends up feeling like a first draft of something interesting.