The genetic engineering chiller Splice is a double helix of perversity.
Canadian director Vincent Natali borrows freely from countryman David Cronenberg in this tale of suspense, sexual transgression and "body horror." Lacking Cronenberg's masterful way with visuals or his penetrating intelligence, however, the film's deliberately provocative premise is worked out in broad, lurid comic-book strokes, consciously calculated to shock the easily shockable and titillate the peculiar.
Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play bio-researchers and life partners nervously dancing around the issue of having children. Clive and Elsa (whose names echo those of featured actors in The Bride of Frankenstein — the script has flashes of wit) are more adventurous in the lab. They have synthesized a new life form that resembles a garden slug the size of a pot roast. In pursuit of prestige and profit (the pair have been featured in Wired magazine and have their eyes on a sumptuous new loft) they secretly create a "transhuman" creature whose genetic makeup might yield new medicines. Dithering, morally ambivalent Clive can't decide whether to kill the creature; Elsa is as protective as a lioness.
The creation, Dren, rapidly matures into a bald, lissome adult female mutant: Picture Sinead O'Connor with computer-generated chicken legs and a tail with a phallic "stinger." To prevent her discovery by prying corporate superiors, the pair raise her in a remote farmhouse, which unlocks a trove of disturbing memories from Elsa's troubled childhood. The trio take the concept of family togetherness to unhealthy and unorthodox extremes: Someone should have called the Department of Mutant Child Protection and Family Services.
Polley, a reliably impressive performer, covers a rich emotional range convincingly; Brody repeatedly overacts. Delphine Chaneac, who portrays Dren, handles a challenging, provocative role well.
Splice deserves credit for a novel take on a familiar theme, and for pushing the boundaries of behavior instead of unleashing buckets of gore. But it loses points for uninspired execution. With its dreary lighting, cable-TV-movie photography and shoestring sets, the film shouts "budget-strapped indie" from every frame.
The gravest failure, however, is in the writing. The film has no clear purpose, no lucid message. It dwells on grotesque sex, but toward what end is never apparent. What allegorical force it does build up is dissipated by the clichéd switcheroo ending.