“What’s the worst that could happen?” The smart viewer, upon hearing this phrase during a film, will cringe. This is always intended as a rhetorical query, yet the asking will invariably summon up the barrel-bottom worst-case scenario that the characters are doing all they can to avoid. This holds especially true if these characters are in a film wherein they’re practically inviting the worst upon themselves by Tampering in God’s Domain—a film like, say, Vincenzo Natali’s creepy-funny sci-fi shock show Splice. I fervently hope your average genetic researcher’s impetus for experimentation and advancement of knowledge is generally more complex and well-reasoned than a shrug and an utterance of “What’s the worst that could happen?” Initially, Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) have a perfectly good reason for their boundary-expanding, species-scrambling work: They’re getting paid to do so by a large corporation that very much enjoys the beneficial proteins that have been isolated and harvested from their pet project, a pair of hybrid slug-like organisms cheekily named Fred and Ginger. But where Clive and Elsa want to continue working in this vein, discovering new things about genetic combinations, the company (represented, most of the time, by the reliably amusing David Hewlett) is fine with stopping and funneling all future effort into the pharmaceutical potential of Fred and Ginger. The strong-willed Elsa chafes against this and cooks up another creature on the sly, one with doses of human DNA; Clive, being stupid in love, goes along despite his strenuous objections. As the rapidly-evolving new being (dubbed “Dren” by its creators) becomes less bestial and more human, the worst gradually and inexorably happens.
The comparison is blatant—it’s even there in the character names—yet I’d feel remiss if I didn’t make it simply because it’s also correct. Splice drags the well-worn Frankenstein template into the age of gene therapy. This seems wholly appropriate as the film is itself a Frankenstein monster assembled from the influences of others. In the genetic stew that birthed this can be spotted, among others, a little of Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive, a good dollop of Eraserhead, and a whole heap of David Cronenberg (The Brood and The Fly). Yet, like the monster in Mary Shelley’s tale, Splice manages to transcend being a mere moribund patchwork of other people’s work. Natali respects his forbearers enough to not just filch bits and pieces. He’s after something larger: The primal way that metaphors can kick with boots under the cover of genre. Strip away the biological oddities and the narrative reveals itself as an emotionally tense piece about two stressed-out working parents and their offspring, whose hormonal and physical changes coupled with a desire to explore the world on her own terms stretch these relationships to the breaking point. The psychological push-pull pressure, the exhaustion, the way damaging traits can filter down and fuck up your kids the same way your parents fucked up you… it’s all there, plain as day. Brody and Polley are both invaluable in this regard, refusing as they do to play down to the material; Polley in particular delivers in a crucial role that leaves her both coddler and disciplinarian, rationalist and psychotic, abuser and abused, sympathetic and otherwise.
When needed, Splice erupts, unhesitatingly, with a wicked, transgressive energy, splaying viscera and acrid throat-catching laughs in every direction.
Yet while this is ingrained in the text, Natali smartly avoids the trap of making it the text itself. The metaphorical intent gives it gravity and potency, but Splice is foremost a vehicle for making the average viewer squirm in discomfort. The film is fairly low-key for much of its running time, a pot on a flame set to build a low rolling boil. And like any such pot, it can get messy when it finally boils over. When needed, Splice erupts, unhesitatingly, with a wicked, transgressive energy, splaying viscera and acrid throat-catching laughs in every direction. Natali throws the gauntlet down halfway through in a terrific scene where a product demonstration at a tech conference goes unexpectedly and gruesomely wrong for Brody and Polley, and from there he keeps Splice teetering with savage glee on the line between breakthrough and disaster. As Dren changes, she unveils new physical tricks as needed and becomes more recognizably human (and attractively feminine), and the film changes with her. The careful and controlled early stages become messy and unpredictable as emotion trumps logic, culminating in a couple taboo-busting encounters where sexuality is weaponized. The third act, finally, does devolve into a traditional monster-on-the-loose climactic rampage, yet even this cliched action-stravaganza is executed by Natali with a panache and tautness that avoids the stench of copout. Splice is smart, tight and ruthless, a rumination on parenthood and creation that explodes into an unforgiving sick joke. The worst, assuredly, will happen. Brace yourself.