It's been interesting to listen to the conversations about "Splice" in the few days since I saw it. Reactions have been fairly evenly divided, and the people who don't like it aren't really running down the filmmaking or the performances or the effects work used to bring Dren, the strange new life form at the center of the film, to such vivid and bizarre life. They just plain don't like the experience. I can see that. "Splice" is jet-black, especially with its sense of humor, and any time you mix sexuality into a horror film, people get weird about it. It plays on a level that some people's lizard brain just plain rejects. Too much chocolate in the peanut butter, so to speak.
I really liked "Splice,' and in the days since I saw it, I've been thinking about some of the images and ideas over and over, which is a good sign. There's a lot going on in the film, and it's the sort of thing that will play well a second or third time, as you're able to go back and really break down what it is Natali's doing in each movement of the film. I will admit that the first time I read the names of the characters played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley in the film -- Clive and Elsa -- I rolled my eyes and thought, "Oh, no, that's so obvious and on-the-nose cute, I hope the whole film is like that."
The thing is, Natali defuses it in the first scene, when we meet the first generation born-in-a-lab life forms that were created by the hotshot geneticists played by Brody and Polley. The monsters are called Fred and Ginger, and it's thrown away in a manner that lets you know that Natali thinks the naming is less important than what they do, that "cute" is a tendency most people can't resist when naming couples. Clive and Elsa are, of course, a reference to Colin Clive and Elsa Lanchester, who played Dr. Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein in the 1935 masterpiece "The Bride Of Frankenstein," and that obvious joke is also a statement of mission: Natali knows exactly what story he's teling, and he wants to bring Mary Shelly's original concepts into the age where genetic miracles have become almost commonplace.
The film's greatest success is also the thing that it has to get right or the movie doesn't work on any level, and that's the design and execution of Dren, the first creature that Clive and Elsa create using human DNA. Basically, Fred and Ginger were built from the DNA of a dozen different animal species, and the next step, the research that Clive and Elsa are convinced is going to make them superstars, is taking the next step and adding human material to the next life-form they create. What they make, though, surprises and ultimately terrifies them, even if Natali manages to resist the rhythms that most filmmakers would have used in building the story. Dren's life-cycle is strange and always interesting to watch as she matures, and eventually Dren is playing by a French actress named Delphine Chanéac, combined with prosthetics and CGI. Dren works for me as a character from the start to the finish, each version of her making perfect sense to me as it gives way to the next one. Even if things never spun out of control, and boy do they, I would still think Dren's story was compelling and well-executed here, and that's unusual in genre fare.
Both Brody and Polley get what Natali is doing, and they negotiate some very tricky tonal material for him. This could easily collapse into a fat bag of ridiculous in several places, but Natali is sincere about the story even when he stages a grang guignol sequence of a science lecture gone horribly wrong or a twisted love scene. He knows how to create a tone where all of these outlandish things seem not only possible but inevitable. Polley in particular brings a very different energy to this than I've seen from her before, and I think it's some of the most overtly appealing work of her acting career. She seems to relish the role she's been given.
This film took forever to make it from script to screen, but it's worth the wait. Natali has always been a promising genre stylist, and even if I don't love every moment of "Cypher," "Nothing," or "Cube," those films displayed enormous promise. For me, "Splice" is the first film where that promise is fully rewarded, and everyone who helped Natali get this labor of love from womb to birth deserves a hand, because the movie feels uncompromised, genuinely transgressive at times, and smart in the ways it entertains. It's probably my favorite film from the midnights line-up at Sundance so far, and I hope some clever distributor cleans up with it in the US at some point this year.
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