Sunday, August 01, 2010

Review - Splice

"What's the worst that could happen?" That question comes up a couple of times in Splice, and it's usually the precursor to another unpleasant development. Vincenzo Natali's latest film is full of gory surprises, and while they may be unpleasant ones for his lead characters, they tend to be very enjoyable ones for the audience. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is the fact that Splice coheres as well as it does, given the fact that it's something of a hybrid itself, drawing on a variety of cinematic influences and blending disparate tones. Of course, from the moment scientists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) begin mucking around with genetics in an unauthorised experiment, you know exactly how Splice is going to end, but you're still likely to have a lot of fun with the weird twists and turns that Natali takes en route.

Clive and Elsa (their names are one of many referential nods to Splice's horror movie precursors) are a married pair of hot-shot scientists at a genetic research facility, whose semi-celebrity status in the field has earned them a long leash. They work with creative autonomy and plentiful funds, and we are introduced to them just as they are on the verge of a real breakthrough. Our first glimpse of the pair actually comes from that breakthrough's point of view, when the lengthy opening credits sequence ends with a light shining at the end of some kind of birth canal, where Clive and Elsa await with outstretched arms and excitement in their eyes. "He's so cute!" Elsa proclaims, although 'Fred' is little more than an ugly, fleshy and weirdly phallic creature to objective eyes, and his chief aim is to produce potentially life-saving proteins when he's partnered with his similarly unattractive mate ('Ginger', naturally). It's a major scientific leap forward, but Elsa already has her eyes on phase two.

She wants to start splicing human DNA into the mix, and when the powers that be say no, she decides to defy the cautious Clive and run a few little experiments outside of office hours, which is where things start to get interesting. The result of Elsa's experiment, which she names Dren, has odd facial features, elongated legs and a scorpion-like tail, but she's recognisably human enough for the childless Elsa to form a strong attachment to her. She begins coddling Dren and dressing her in baby clothes, much to Clive's unease, but even he finds himself feeling protective towards their dirty little secret as the film progresses. The unnaturalness of Clive and Elsa's paternal feelings for Dren gives Splice a queasy fascination and a moral complexity that elevates it beyond its B-movie setup. The strong performances from Brody and a particularly excellent Polley also help in this regard, with both actors bringing a conviction to their roles that keep the film rooted in something real.

The most extraordinary performance in the film, however, comes from Delphine Chanéac who, after Dren grows at an accelerated rate, embodies the fully developed creature. A film like Splice really stands or falls on the quality of its monster, and Dren certainly is a memorable creation, which Chanéac plays with a childlike curiosity that segues seamlessly into alarming bouts of rage or an unnerving seductiveness. That seductiveness comes into play late in the film, resulting in a hilarious reaction shot, and one of Splice's chief pleasures is the way Natali embraces the ridiculousness of much of his film, leavening the shocks and gore with a well-judged note of black humour. Natali's previous features Cube and Cypher both made the most of their modest budgets through the director's inventive storytelling and sharp direction, and it's pleasing to see that working on a larger canvas hasn't robbed the director of his idiosyncratic approach.

Or has it? Splice has everything going for it right up to the climax, which is where Natali rather throws things away. It's not an awful ending by any means, but it feels so rote and conventional, tacked onto a film that has hitherto been gleefully subversive. The climax feels like it could have fit any number of lazy horrors, and I can't help feeling that this picture really deserved better, with the final twist in particular feeling like a first-draft idea that's too obvious to hold any impact. Still, Splice succeeds in its aims more often than not, and in the current film landscape, it stands out as an unusual and imaginative take on an old story. It may be a hybrid, but until the final reel, it's an extremely effective one.