In a way, myth became reality when the ancient Greek concept of a chimera—a monstrous mash-up of different animals—became standard terminology in biology, describing genetic hybrids. The temptation to tinker makes scientific advancement possible, but it’s also, in a way, the story of mating and reproducing. Playing God and playing house converge in the weird, wild new horror film Splice.
Co-writer/director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) has in Splice a demented combination of Frankenstein and Species wherein a large part of survival of the fittest means being sexy. A little sexiness doesn’t seem to have hurt hotshot celebrity scientists Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley), first glimpsed lording over genetic research from the cover of Wired (their names pay homage to the stars of Bride of Frankenstein). Sharing a bed and a lab, the couple gets off on breeding chimeras in the hopes of synthesizing life-saving proteins. On the birth of their latest creation, they show a parental affection. “He’s sooo cute!” Elsa coos, though the audience will gleefully recoil at the phallic beast squirming in its incubator, a baby only David Cronenberg could love.
A reversal of fortune spells either abandonment of the cutting-edge research or, as Elsa reasons it, secretly ramping it up in closed-door late-night sessions. Choosing the latter with all the fervency of the archetypal mad doctor, Elsa breaks the ultimate taboo by creating a human/animal hybrid “splice” using her own DNA (distressingly, this has more or less been done in reality, with something called a "cytoplasmic hybrid"). Apparently unfamiliar with the concept of “famous last words,” Elsa asks, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Commence rubbing your hands with glee, horror fans.
Using the lab equipment of the Nucleic Exchange Research & Development facility (that’s right: N.E.R.D.), Elsa “births” a chimera she calls Dren (“nerd” backwards). Elsa’s ambivalence about children (no to Clive, yes to Dren) has something to do with her own domineering mother, but despite her issues, she bonds with her creation, cuddling with her and teaching her. Clive warily takes note of this two-way imprinting, but he’s having none of it. Elsa assures him that that’s nothing to fear: Dren wasn’t bred from predatory animals. “Well, there’s the human element,” he replies.
Soon Dren is full grown, in the convincingly lithe form of French-Canadian actress Delphine Chanéac. CGI and the special makeup and creature effects of veteran Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero give Chanéac bird-like legs and a barbed tail, but they’re not enough to rob the creature of its increasingly emboldened sexuality (might it be the mate-and-kill type?). It’s probably not such a good idea for Clive to give Dren a dance lesson, but then again Splice dramatizes one bad idea after another: what’s one more?
Lending their own brands of heft, Brody and the inestimable Sarah Polley make a meal of the idnight-movie material, which is about as gonzo as the multiplex gets. Natali knows he’s way out on a limb and likes it there, giving the audience as many squirmy thrills as he can cram into 103 minutes.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Warner presents Splice in a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack. This is a brand new film transferred to hi-def with Warner's customary care: the source is, of course, spotless, and the image is film-like, offering grain but also fine texture and detail in the camera's subjects. The color scheme and contrast are accurately represented; though this isn't the sort of picture designed for dimensional "pop" (as a horror film, little of it takes place in natural, warm light), this transfer fulfills the director's intent in every way. Sound comes in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, which expertly manages the film's subtle ambient creeps and punch-packing points of sonic impact without sacrificing clarity of dialogue.
"A Director's Playground: Vincenzo Natali on the Set of Splice" (35:21, SD) is the sole bonus feature, but at least it's a reasonably meaty look at the film's production and the oeuvre of its director. The focus is on Natali and his process, with extensive set footage and interviews with the likes of Natali, Toronto Film Fest programmer Colin Geddes and co-writer Doug Taylor.
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