'Splice' Is Terribly Beautiful
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
"What are little girls made of? / Frogs and snails, And puppy-dogs' tails; That's what little girls are made of."
The little "girl" who genetic scientists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) spawn in their lab never came from splicing sugar and spice, and though awesome, she is most certainly not nice. Director Vincenzo Natali ("Cube") has dreamed up a "Frankenstein" for our day, animated by good acting and terrific special effects. (Kudos to FX designers Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero.)
Stuffing "Splice" full of psycho-sexual smarts and tasty bits from a variety of horror genres, the director eventually loses control of straight-up, reach-out-and-grab-you storytelling. Still, mining horror out of moral quandary rather than mindless slaughter, "Splice" occasionally achieves a terrible beauty.
Opening from the POV of a monster emerging from a mechanical womb and climaxing with demonic rape, "Splice" digs into challenging, sometimes grotesquely funny, often repellent issues, of the scientific, spiritual and sexual kind. This is next door to David Cronenberg's bailiwick (especially "The Brood"), though Natali never matches the master's take-it-to-the-max vision.
"Splice"'s scientists are big-pharma stars: young, sexy, super-smart and way hip (even their names reference Colin Clive's Dr. Frankenstein and Elsa Lanchester's "Bride"!). They've just sutured together animal DNA to breed "Fred" and "Ginger," two slug-like creatures full of proteins that can potentially save human lives. Humping their eyeless way toward each other, these heaps of gray flesh extend graceful pink leaf/petal "tongues" that curve and intertwine in lovely (and, yes, ironic) dance.
Right away, queasy questions arise: What constitutes sentient life, and what manner of parasite creates living beings specifically in order to feed off them? The answer to that last thorny question, according to this film's subtext, is ... mommy and daddy!
When the ice-hearted matriarch who funds their lab nixes new experiments with human/animal DNA and orders her genius kids to continue in their highly profitable work with the slugs, Mr. and Mrs. Science rebel. In secret, they tinker with new toys, joyfully cooking up a witches' brew of DNA from woman, bird, frog and God knows what else. Wise beyond their years in mapping anatomy, this attractive couple is deeply retarded, even twisted, when it comes to human relations. And these bright, feral children are about to become parents -- of a baby with very special needs.
And such a baby! Bald, with a bisected skull, two sensitive feelers, bird legs, sucker feet and a tail with a stinger -- the infant isn't blue, but it's so ugly and unmanageable that Clive's ready to put it down on the spot. His impulse from the get-go has been to "abort," and it's clear that Natali is digging into lizard-brain psychology here. Clive's acting out the reluctant dad who views baby as rival, a thief who will steal his mate's love and attention. From this immature POV, the newborn is a monster -- which, since we're in a horror movie, it literally is.
Bedeviled by memories of a crazy mommy who kept her daughter kenneled like an animal, Elsa isn't hot for motherhood. And yet, perversely, she desires a child who's a plaything, payback for her own objectification. Her weird-science experiment looks like a practice run, all reward and no responsibility.
Aping "Carrie"'s lethal mommy, Elsa's anxious to erase every boundary between mother and mutant child: "You are part of me ... I am inside of you." She names the birdlike creature Dren (dread? wren?), the reflection of the acronym N.E.R.D. that's printed on her company T-shirt. Dren becomes the Barbie doll that kept Ms. Frankenstein company during her abusive childhood.
Dren never has a chance with these babes in the parental woods. Brody and Polley perfectly channel the helpless confusion of first-time parents saddled with a difficult baby. Trouble is, one of their easiest solutions is offing the sprout. Growing up at warp speed, the beautiful, wildly intelligent mutant makes the mistake of hungering for more than mom (she spells out "tedious" with Scrabble tiles, then, with pleading eyes, "outside") -- and falls innocently into Oedipal lust with dad. (Her elegant joy and wonderful trilling and warbling as Clive teaches her to dance are heartbreaking.)
As Dren, French actress Delphine Chaneac is superb; looking into her eyes, you glimpse something like true Otherness. Yet somehow this alien "angel" arouses our affection and pity, the desire to protect her from her feckless parents and their appetite for instant gratification. Poised on roof's edge, ready to wing her way to freedom, she turns at Clive's words: "We love you." He might be Satan tempting Christ not to leap off a precipice; to paraphrase from "King Kong," "It's love that will kill the beast."
Though our Hansel and Gretel travel from mad-scientist lab to haunted house and finally into nightmarish forest, going ever-deeper into the primal dark behind the brain, they fail to achieve self-knowledge. Still, "Splice" ends on top of the world. Perversely reprising Dren's rooftop temptation, two wicked witches -- CEO and scientist -- survey a glittering cityscape, savoring the fruit of selling their souls. Gotta wonder if "Splice" will have a sequel -- and if it does, what rough beast will slouch toward Bethlehem to be born, second time round.
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.