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Two young rebellious scientists are told by their employers to halt groundbreaking work that has seen them produce new creatures with medical benefits by splicing together multiple organisms' DNA. They decide to secretly continue their work, but this time splicing in human DNA. Written by
James Whale's 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" was one of the earliest films to chronicle man's quest (via science and nature, and in notably strict defiance of God) to literally create life by transgressing human reproduction; granted, the result was the hideous, hulking visage of Boris Karloff, but one couldn't help but be in awe of the sheer gumption of Victor Frankenstein and his accomplices. Roman Polanski evolved this idea (via adaptation of Ira Levin's novel) in "Rosemary's Baby," which took the notion of creating something truly awful (the son of Satan) and using it as a metaphor for a woman's self-destruction and paranoia during pregnancy. Larry Cohen's "It's Alive" took contemporary paranoias of a carcinogen-engulfed atmosphere and nuclear proliferation and applied it to his own murderous, bloodthirsty infant. And rounding out this prolific bunch is David Lynch's "Eraserhead," a hauntingly surreal horror film that not only presents parenthood with fearful uncertainty, but treats acts of sexuality and procreation with a metaphorically clinical (but never explicit) disgust.
Vincenzo Natali's "Splice" falls somewhere within this noteworthy pantheon of mad science, moral/ethical conundrums, and icky special effects. Many have already drawn comparisons (both positive and negative) to the early, mutation-informed works of Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, but Natali is just as interested in exploring the questions under the surface as he is showing an astutely creative visual eye. For a while, the film plays like something closer to an art-house feature (especially given the presence of character actors like Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) with intriguing ideas and a solid FX budget. There are missteps along the way, but for the most part, this is a solid little sleeper.
Clive (Brody) and Elsa (Polley) are young scientists who have made a breakthrough in artificial life: two blob-like creatures (one male, one female) with the ability to manufacture an artificial protein for the purpose of nourishing livestock. In typical, business-first fashion, their corporate overlords marvel at the notion of mass-manufacturing it, and promptly reject Elsa's proposition of human experimentation (to cure genetic disorders). Driven by curiosity, the duo wind up creating Dren (Delphine Chaneac), a creature whose accelerated life cycle prompts the creepily maternal Elsa to keep her as part of a more personal "experiment." "Splice" contains subtle, well-played allusions to bad childhoods, long-term psychoses, and the shifting roles of parents in the eyes of children (Clive starts off as vehemently oppositional; later, he becomes a reluctant accomplice who ultimately develops a bizarre affection for the creation), not to mention the tension between parents amid the child-rearing process; watching this trio interact supplies most of the film's compelling, hypnotic moments. This deliberate pace and focus on character may prove off-putting to horror fans sold on the ADHD weirdness of the trailer, but those with open minds will find much to gorge themselves on.
Despite all the admirably creative spins on familiar concepts, Natali (or perhaps the producers, action aficionado Joel Silver being one) run out of fresh material by the climax, which takes chase clichés and overdone monster effects down a road that exists solely to patch up some character arcs and drum up excitement in a blandly conventional way. That being said, the first 3/4 of "Splice" is such a surprisingly effective slow burn of suspense and dread (culled from universal hopes and fears), played out by actors who know the fine line between camp and creep, that its later machinations are pretty easy to forgive.
6.5 out of 10
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