Dren is the product of science run amok—part amphibian, part bird, and part supermodel, created by biochemist couple Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) before the plug is pulled on their controversial splicing-stuff-together program. But when Elsa hybridizes her latest freak show, is it really for the sake of curing our deadliest diseases or is it to make for herself the child Clive won’t give her? Inquiring minds want to know—and the fact that we never really get a grasp of Elsa’s intentions is part of Splice‘s problem.
Working for the first time with something of a Hollywood-sized budget, Cube director Vincenzo Natali confirms that he has a knack for novelty but scant ability to set off truly heart-wrenching emotional provocation. You could say that he’s a hybrid himself: two-thirds David Cronenberg, one-third Paul W.S. Anderson. The man’s visual style is nondescript but, compared to the Vaseline-slick shit smears produced by Platinum Dunes, nonetheless welcomingly patient, and for much of its running time, Splice at least gets by on the sheer strangeness and unpredictability of its premise, as well as its quirky jolts of humor.
An obsession with dance informs many of the laughs: “Bob-fucking-Fosse” is used as an expletive and the slug-like creepy crawlies that first bring success to Clive and Elsa, whose gene-splicing company goes by the acronym N.E.R.D., are named Fred and Ginger. You laugh in part because Fosse, Astaire, and Rogers’s blurring of gender roles in their art cleverly connects with the evolution of Clive and Elsa’s monsters throughout the film—the females eventually morph into males, displaying rather violent tendencies—at the same time as you bemoan Natalie’s images for never really dancing on air. So, the style of the film is scarcely balletic, but the plot waltzes in enticingly nutzoid directions. (Spoilers herein.)
When N.E.R.D. gets shut down, Clive and Elsa hide Dren (played as an adult by smoking-hot Delphine Chanéac) in an old farmhouse where Elsa was raised by her mother, rearing her as they would any child—teaching her to read, protecting her from diseases, and telling her that she can’t always get what she wants. Complicating this education is Dren’s temper, which expresses itself in part through the vicious stinger attached to her tail, and things go quickly to shit when Clive fucks the monster, who, unbeknownst to her parents, isn’t on the brink of womanhood but, rather, a particularly hellish and aggressive manhood.
If anything, the film is the ne plus ultra of chicks-with-dicks body horror, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Scanners or eXistenz. This is because Natali doesn’t substantively follow through on his legitimately fascinating ideas. Because Clive’s boinking of Dren is neither a show of vengeance on Clive’s part (she simply looks like her mother) nor a pheromonally induced act provoked by Dren, the story tritely abides by that ostensibly universal truth that “men will be men”—regardless of the species. “There are moral considerations,” a character announces at one point, yet the writer-director never considers them.
Natali also alludes to but never really lingers on Elsa’s rocky past (her shitty relationship to her mother and even shittier living conditions), and as such you never get a particularly profound or poignant sense of Elsa’s relationship to Dren as an experiment in correcting and transcending that past. Because he holds his cards way too close to his chest, Natali gives us nothing more than a genuinely arresting but nonetheless under-thought show of weird science.