My husband was in the mood for some lightweight entertainment last night, so we went to Splice. It wasn’t great, but it fit the bill.
Splice starts out as a 21st-century version of those ’50s movies about monsters that threaten to end civilization as we know it—only the monsters look much creepier, like digital upgrades of the slimy horrors in Eraserhead and Alien. The scientists are updated too, a spiky pair of cool nerds, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), who are partners in life as well as at the lab. Their marital ups and downs help ground this sometimes goofy fantasy, which got laughs I don’t think its makers intended. But the best thing about Splice is the thoroughly alive-looking creatures Clive and Elsa concoct, mixing together genes from different species.
Fred and Ginger, their original creations, look something like lumpy, giant slugs and feel like thoroughly sensate beings with their visible veins, viscous skins and sometimes tentative, sometimes aggressive movements. But the real marvel is Dren, the part-human hybrid who is the focus of this story. An ever-mutating creature, Dren starts off looking like a featherless chicken crossed with a rabbit before growing into a beautiful young woman—if you’re willing to overlook a few little things, like kangaroo legs and a lethal tail.
Just as interesting as Dren’s rapid, sometimes disturbing mutation is her relationship with Clive and Elsa. They treat this sensitive creature as if she were the child Elsa refuses to have and they were Psycho’s Mr. and Mrs. Bates. That relationship makes Splice a pretty gutsy exploration of the morality of keeping a living creature captive to be experimented on. But when it comes to the other ethical questions the movie raises—like where to draw the line in genetic engineering or how to mediate between the love of scientific knowledge for its own sake, the need to cure disease, and the corporate greed that routinely trumps both—Splice is no more sophisticated than The Thing. Big questions get acknowledged in passing, but there’s no time to explore them before we’re on to the next big dramatic conflict or chase scene.
Things veer into pure sensationalism when Elsa and Clive decide to stash Dren in Elsa’s crazy mother’s creepy house in the woods. And we’re off, leaving the world of weird science for a less arty version of Antichrist, chaos reigning as unstable women, mystified men, and things that go bump in the night collide in a mashup of sex, mutilation and murder.
Like Antichrist, Splice feels downright misogynist at times, blaming the chaos on female characters whose motivations are as underdeveloped as the movie’s big ideas. The tantalizing tidbits we’re fed about Elsa’s past don’t quite add up to an explanation for her often horrifying behavior, and Dren remains a total cipher despite her charmingly expressive body language and birdlike vocalizations.
This might have been a better movie if it had gone deeper, but it’s still pretty entertaining. Like its Cold War-era great-grandparents, Splice is hardly a deep-dish exploration of its paranoiac themes. But its monsters embody some very real fears, and they’re realistic enough to provide a satisfying frisson of summer-movie dread.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.