While a lot of films fall under the vast umbrella that is science fiction, there have been far too few pure sci-fi flicks made over the past several years. With the exception of the fantastic District 9, most sci-fi films have had more of focus on the action rather than the actual science. Films like Independence Day, Cloverfield, and even the Transformers franchise all feature the familiar elements of the genre (aliens, monsters, machines), but offer little by way of exploration into how these things came about, or their effect on humanity as a whole (save for its destruction, of course). More often than not, as in the aforementioned films, the science is dumbed down for mass consumption, while the action or horror quotient is upped for maximum crowd-pleasing appeal. This is why I was so pleasantly surprised by Vincenzo Natali’s (Cube) Splice; a smart, subversive, and, at times, sadistic little film that thoroughly embraces its sci-fi influences head on.
Clive and Elsa (Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley) are rock star geneticists, working on a project in which the DNA of various species are spliced together, creating an entirely new organism with massive medicinal benefits. When their current project yields spectacular results for the pharmaceutical company funding their work, the duo ask to be allowed to take their work to the next level – splicing human DNA. Instead, however, they are told they will be overseeing the more mundane task of excising proteins from their most recent creation as the powers that be fear the political ramifications of working with human DNA despite the promises it holds. Elsa, in particular, is furious that their benefactors aren’t willing to take the gamble, and convinces Clive to assist her in running their own personal experiment, just to see if it can be done. Clive is reticent, but he’s never been able to say no to Elsa, and, fueled by both his ego and love for his partner, agrees to do it so long as Elsa promises to terminate the experiment once they’re able to prove to themselves that they can do it. Their plans run amok, however, when the “fetus” they’ve created comes to term far earlier than expected, and, once their creation – a sort of human/fawn hybrid – is born, Elsa can’t bring herself to end its life despite Clive’s protests. Their creation - dubbed Dren (a palindrome of their company’s name, N.E.R.D.) – grows at an exponential rate, reaching adulthood in a matter of weeks. During this time, Elsa forms a motherly bond with the creature, but, as we soon learn, Elsa’s ideas of motherhood are sullied by an abusive upbringing. Matters are made worse when Clive begins to develop his own bond with Dren (Delphine Chaneac) , who has grown into something of an exotically beautiful creature. As both their work and relationship suffers under the weight of Dren, Clive and Elsa are each driven to very unique extremes that have them questioning who the real monster is.
Splice is a fascinating and, at times, very disturbing film. Natali’s vision is thoroughly uncompromising, resulting in several very uncomfortable moments that will turn more than a few stomachs. This is a film in which the true villain is Clive and Elsa’s own sense of hubris and nihilism. They relish in the act of playing God, viewing the potential of their creation with clinical detachment. Once the creature is born, however, Elsa instantly forms a maternal bond with it – one perverted by a childhood spent with an abusive parent – and her cruel nature leads to Dren’s inevitable rebellion. Disgusted by this side of Elsa, Clive, who once advocated for Dren’s destruction, finds himself compelled to protect her. As their bond is explored, however, it reveals itself to be just as twisted as the one between Elsa and Dren.
While both Brody and Polley turn in very strong performances, it’s Chanaec’s Dren who steals the show. The actress conveys an unbelievable amount of emotion and pathos without uttering a single word. While many will credit the strength of her performance on the technical wizardry used enhance her otherworldly appearance, it’s Chaneac’s expressive face and deliberate movements that does the bulk of the work, here, and the payoff of using a flesh-and-blood actress rather than a total CGI creation is enormous.
Warner Brothers brings Splice to Blu-ray with their usual fine treatment. The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, with a sharp overall image and exceptional fine detail in close-ups. Colors are vibrant while blacks are deep and true, but I did notice an occasional hint of digital crush in some of the outdoor night sequences in the film’s last act. Overall, though, the image quality is well above average, and is bolstered by a strong 5.1 DTS HD track that offers a very immersive surround mix, percussive bass, and crisp dialogue.
Extras are limited to a single special feature, but it’s a good one (despite being presented in Standard Definition). A Director's Playground: Vincenzo Natali on the Set of Splice is a meaty offering that gives us a fairly comprehensive look at the inception and production of the film, with lots of behind-the-scenes footage, breakdowns of selected scenes and effects shots, and interviews with Natali and his creative team.
Those expecting a Species retread or balls-to-the-wall action/monster movie hybrid will be sorely disappointed as Splice is neither. Instead, Natali has delivered a thoughtful and thought-provoking meditation on the dangers of playing God. Like Frankenstein before it, Splice is more of an indictment of scientific hubris than of the “monster” itself, and the result is a film that is moving, terrifying, and, at times, difficult to watch. It’s also easily one of the best pure science fiction films of the last several years and earns my highest recommendation.