In 1997 a little-known Canadian Director made a movie called Cube, about a group of strangers trapped in an elaborate man-made cubic maze filled with nasty traps and complex puzzles. The extremely low budget mystery sci-fi horror was massively effective and immensely popular – with critics and audiences alike. The Director, a certain Vincenzo Natali, went on to do the little-known Cypher, an interesting but ultimately unexceptional little sci-fi thriller which suffered from a limited release and subsequently went largely unnoticed. Since then, Natali’s done nothing of significance (literally, doing a film called Nothing which was pretty... erm... insignificant). Eventually the Director returned to the project that he had originally planned to be his next movie after Cube, a sci-fi horror called Splice. Boasting a bigger budget than he has ever had before and some recognised acting talent, will his cautionary tale about genetic experimentation stand up alongside his groundbreaking debut?
Clive and Elsa are a young couple who work together as part of an elite team that do experiments on DNA splicing: combining elements from several different animals in an attempt to create a viable new species. Their work is cutting edge, the possibilities endless, but whilst they have some success with non-human material, the real future lies in a human-animal hybrid. With that they could potentially cure any of the previously incurable diseases that plague mankind, advancing medical science to the next level and saving no end of lives in the process. The trouble is that human cloning is illegal, and their backers simply don’t want to take the risk and deal with the bad publicity. Elsa, however, has other ideas. Desperate to see whether they can truly make all the theories a reality she persuades the reluctant Clive to go along with a simple test to see if they can get a fertile embryo, but soon the duo find themselves with a full-on hybrid on their hands, one which they simply no longer have the inclination to terminate. Growing into a surprisingly intelligent little girl, and eventually into an unpredictable young woman, the couple’s pet project gets out of control very quickly and starts to not only test the strength of their relationship but also threaten their very lives.
Splice has an extremely good high-concept premise, which tantalises us with interesting thoughts about the moral quandaries surrounding medical experimentation, as well as offering a fascinating, visual look at a fictional hybrid species. But that’s about as far as it goes. At best, it is a b-movie cross between Cronenberg’s seminal The Fly (more so than the original) and the trashy-but-fun genre flick, Species. The trouble is that it feels like it should have been so much more than that – so much more than just another formulaic entry in the ever-burgeoning genetic-tinkering-that-goes-wrong sub-genre. Which is exactly what it is.
There’s a good cast involved too, which only adds insult to injury. We have Adrien Brody, the Oscar-winning actor from The Pianist, who went back into the battleground for a different kind of war in Robert Rodriguez’s recent, unexceptional sequel, Predators. And we get Sarah Polley, who showed early promise in the great little indie flick, Go, and attained a higher star status with her role in the competent Dawn of the Dead remake. They both make for an authentically snappy couple, always arguing and shouting at each other – despite their love and respect for one another – and not entirely sure that they both want the same end result from the relationship. Brody even manages to (eventually) largely jettison that awful, pained, pitiful look that he perpetually carries on his furrowed brows, which often becomes intrusively irritating in his movies. The trouble is that, for cutting edge scientists, veritable budding geniuses, these two are pretty damn stupid. They defy all logic, throw all of the rules and safeguards out of the window; acting not just against the law but against morality itself, and – most annoyingly – ignoring all of the blatantly obvious warning signs. Didn’t they see what happened to the creatures in their first experiment?? How many times to they have to go running off into the woods, chasing their wild creation, and finding something horrific in the process, to realise that they have gone way, way too far?
Nope, the two lead characters are so infuriatingly stupid that it mars any potential impact that the film’s promising concept could have had. Every single suspenseful scene is tainted by the fact that you think to yourself, ‘these guys just brought it on themselves’. Not only do you not particularly care what happens to them, but you actually start to come around to thinking they deserve whatever they get, particularly with their flipping capriciously between taking the moral avenue, showing feelings for the creature they have created, and just plain treating it like a lab rat. This childish whimsy is relentlessly frustrating.
Talking about the lab rat, the filmmakers have at least managed to come up with a relatively organic-looking human hybrid. As a young girl she is played by Abigail Chu, but as a young woman newcomer Delphine Chaneac takes the reins, complete with reversed lower legs, widened eyes, a stinger-equipped tail, and a keen element of bizarre allurement. She plays the part just right, exuding unpredictable menace beneath her naive temperament; acutely intelligent, yet massively over-protected and hidden away (understandably) from the wide open world where, no doubt, she would reign supreme at the top of the food chain. Well, at least until somebody pulled out a gun.
Unfortunately Chaneac’s contribution is a fleeting moment of sunlight in an otherwise downhill narrative progression. Rather than defying genre convention, creating characters that act not only against type but against stereotype, Splice plays it safe, sticking to its portrayal of stupid people who do stupid things because – if they didn’t – well, there wouldn’t be much of a story would there? If they really had realised it was a bad idea at the beginning and terminated the foetus, then that would have been the end of it. But then the film’s over in 10 minutes and not half as interesting. Of course, the thing is that truly imaginative, visionary Directors can still develop these familiar stories in unique ways. I guess I always assumed that (mostly because of Cube) Vincenzo Natali could have been such a Director. Instead he plays it safe, offering the audience – which he obviously assumes is dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers – blatant signposts to every single outcome. There’s even a stupid, predictable coda with that horrible “it’s over, or is it?” sentiment. Splice is not be a bad film by any means, but if you’ve seen The Fly and Species, you aren’t in for any surprises here: just a slick, visually effective bastard hybrid of the two. And that’s just a little bit disappointing.