It’s a shame when a particular film is pigeonholed into a specific genre due to its subject matter. Movies set in space are unlikely to be romantic dramas. The future will never be a fertile setting for comedies. One can also count on any movie featuring a living, intelligent science experiment to be a horror movie. Splice does not escape this expectation, which is too bad, because those expecting a horror flick will be disappointed by the shortage of horror. Others will be pleasantly surprised by the unique story that Splice has to offer, but ultimately will also be disappointed when the drama isn’t explored further. While the film doesn’t quite reach the necessary heights for either drama or horror, its middle-ground is still satisfying in its own right.
Young scientists Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are the rock stars of gene splicing. They have successfully created a new form of life, using the genetic material of different creatures like fish, reptiles and bats. Now the professional and personal couple want to take their experiments to the next level by introducing human genetics. Unfortunately, the corporation funding their labs wants results now rather than later and refuses to fund further experiments until a salable product can be delivered. Sensing fame and fortune on the horizon, Clive and Elsa move forward with human gene splicing and attempt to bring their creation to life. Their experiment is a success beyond their wildest dreams and their darkest nightmares.
Perhaps that last bit is overstating things. There’s actually very little that’s nightmarish about Splice. At times the film does get suspenseful, especially with point-of-view shots through obscured perspectives, but the traditional horror is kept corralled mostly towards the end. As with all instances of science run amok and humans behaving unethically, Splice ends in blood and death. There are echoes of Alien and Species throughout, with dangling tails and rapidly growing hybrid creatures, but it may not be enough for horror fans expecting more fast-moving shapes flying past the screen accompanied by loud stingers.
There are moments, however, that allow for genuine and ironic horror. Since the specimen features human traits and begins to look more human by the day, the scientists build a bond with it – even giving it a name: Dren. At one point, one of the scientists binds Dren to a table and mutilates her body coldly and methodically in the name of science. At another point, a scientist begins treating Dren like a child, almost delighting in punishing her with life lessons. For a second, the unethical behavior of the humans towards this frightened and ignorant creature is horrifying, but it’s fleeting.
While Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley don’t exactly look like the kind of people that have the knowledge and experience to pull off the scientific feats their depicted as doing, they at least act the drama out serviceably. Polley definitely delivers on the frighteningly driven character of Elsa while Brody looks genuinely skeptical and conflicted about the whole affair. It’s also great to see the arcs of the characters shine through the performances as the scientists either grow closer or farther apart from Dren as the experiment goes on. The star of the film, however, is Dren played by Delphine Chanéac. Having no verbal language to use, Chanéac has to rely on physical and visual communication. Her expressive face conveys so much and her movements are perfect for every scene she’s in and never come close to the mockery of pantomime.
The film’s presentation is a bit of a bait and switch. From the opening credits, grotesquely displaying the actor’s names as veins and other tissue within some organism, the filmmakers want audiences to be repulsed and horrified. The second act, however, is pure drama as the scientists and Dren start emulating a family unit with an out-of-control teen. It’s during these scenes that Splice truly shines. Had the film stuck with exploring the moral dilemma of experimenting on a creature that is both human and not human then audiences would have been better served. Alas. While this drama/horror hybrid can be as hard to look at as some of the abominations featured in the film, audiences should look just the same – if only to see something unique.