Writer-director Vincenzo Natali sets up the story in his new film Splice to head down some dark, twisty roads. The second most surprising aspect of the film is that he willingly follows through, taking routes to their logical, if decisively warped, conclusion. The most surprising aspect of the film is that it’s often quite boring when he does so.
Along with fellow credited screenwriters Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor, Natali turns to that most venerable of horror movie themes: science run amok. Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play biochemists who are romantically entwined, and also partnered in running a major project involving genetic manipulation for a pharmaceutical firm. They combine pieces of the DNA of several different animals into new creatures perfectly suited for medical testing, a couple of fleshy, phallic, undulating globs that would make David Cronenberg wipe away a tear of fatherly pride. To take their experiment to the next level requires introducing some human DNA. Here’s where our heroes truly commit the unforgivable sin of playing God. Without letting anyone else in on it, they introduce a little flavor of Homo sapien to the mix they’ve already got. The result is Dren. She is humanoid with a touch of the otherworldly. She has gigantic eyes, a squared off skull, cockeyed legs, and a lithe tail outfitted with a handy stinger. She’s the future of science, and, conventions of the genre dictate, the end of at least a few of the characters that stroll within her reach.
Splice is not lacking in ambition. Natali throws every idea he can come up with into the film, introducing plot elements and themes that echo Greek tragedy, Shakespearean intrigue, and Biblical agony. There’s overt subtext about the fragility of families, banged into dismay by selfishness and jealousy. There’s also glancing condemnations of corporate callousness, subsuming the work of genuine science the concerns of profitability, and the way in which troubled pasts shadow the present. It all starts to overwhelm the film. Natali doesn’t gives himself time to examine one wrinkle before moving on to another mash of narrative fabric. It even starts to compromise other important parts of story construction. Most problematically, all of the characters are weakly conceived, behaving erratically in a way that serves the plot twists more than the people. Amusingly, Dren, played by Delphine Chaneac with less CGI tinkering than I would have thought necessary, emerges as the most fully formed and consistent character. This would be a fun ironic statement if intentional, but she wins that competition more by default than design.
It’s not enjoyable to fault a work for doing too much, trying too hard, but Splice is a unfortunate example of the way that a film can be filled to bursting and still feel hollow.