Film review: Splice (2010), a gorgeous train wreck of sci-fi horror

Photo from the film Splice

Sarah Polley gets up close and personal with... um... something.

Grade: 5 out of 10

The new sci-fi thriller Splice, a modern-day take on Frankenstein that opens Friday (June 4) in theaters, is a gorgeous film that impresses on many levels.

The visuals are breathtaking, a perfect balance between practical and computer-generated effects. The cinematography and art direction often are stunning.

The stars are two top-notch actors, Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, in what is essentially a three-character piece for the majority of its running time. And through its first two acts, the film surrounds viewers with a constant feeling of tension and discomfort peaking with one of the darkest scenes I’ve seen in a mainstream film in awhile.

And then the third act arrives, and Splice takes a abrupt nosedive right into the crapper.

With one incredibly miscalculated, over-the-top scene, Splice suddenly pitches any empathy we had remaining for our characters and devolves straight into camp.

I’m guessing writer-director Vincenzo Natali didn’t intend that, since the following scene is supposed to be heavy and serious, but viewers in my screening laughed through the entire thing. The film never recovers, devolving into an even-sillier resolution that tries way to hard to uncomfortably marry an action-film climax with the dark parenting and sexual metaphors that dominated the second act.

I’ll only say a tiny bit about Splice’s plot to respect its twists and turns.  Natali’s story wears its Frankenstein influence on its sleeve, even naming its main characters after the actors (Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester) who starred in the 1935 classic Bride of Frankenstein.

Thus we’re introduced to Clive (Brody) and Elsa (Polley), scientists who are partners inside and outside the lab. The pair are splicing together the DNA of various animals in hopes of finding cures for diseases.

All goes well until the lab’s corporate parent puts profit ahead of technology, prompting the pair to initiate a secret experiment of their own: mixing human DNA with animal. In short order, they’re the sorta-proud parents of Dren, a brand-new lifeform — part little girl, part kitchen sink of DNA — who has to be seen to be believed.

Bringing Dren to life is not only the most impressive thing Elsa and Clive do — it’s far and away the most impressive thing Splice does. Dren is mostly portrayed by French actor Delphine Chanéac — and she does an excellent job, in fact — but Dren also is a mix of great makeup and extremely believable CGI.

Too bad the story isn’t anywhere near as believable. Natali (who co-wrote and directed the brilliantly original Cube back in 1997) clearly is aping director David Cronenberg — particularly The Fly and The Brood — but where it comes to story and characters, Natali doesn’t have Cronenberg’s chops. Whereas the shocks in Cronenberg’s films tend to be deeply disturbing, most in Splice just come off as outrageous.

Again, there’s a lot to like about Splice, especially the aforementioned cinematography and art direction, which are respectively by Tetsuo Nagata and Joshu de Cartier. The makeup and special effects, led by Howard Berger and K.N.B. Effects Group, are out of this world.

Splice does have some very effective scenes drenched with (occasionally too-obvious) metaphor. And despite some occasionally clunky dialogue, the performances are uniformly strong, particularly Polley, giving her all for what ultimately becomes a very silly movie.

Brody is solid, but the best part of his casting is that he kinda looks like the result of a gene-splicing experiment in the first place.

Sadly, it’s all in service of a story that goes completely off the rails in its final act — and sorry, that’s about all I can say to avoid spoiling it. I’ll cut Natali some slack on the final 15 minutes, because they smell like studio influence and possibly reshoots. But Splice jumps the shark well before then, wrecking some fantastic filmmaking in one fell swoop.

– – –

SPLICE
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Screenplay: Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, Doug Taylor
Starring: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chanéac
Running time: 104 min.
Rating: R

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