With Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chanéac, Brandon McGibbon, Simona Maicanescu. Directed by Vincenzo Natali. Rated R for disturbing elements including strong sexuality, nudity, sci-fi violence and language. 104 minutes.
There’s something odd about SPLICE. It’s not a sequel. It’s not based on a comic book or a video game. Could it be? Yes, it is…. an original science fiction movie. As such, it’s one of the best genre entries since last year’s “District 9.” (“Avatar” looked amazing, but it’s story but pretty derivative.)
We’re in the territory of mad scientists and “there are some things man is not meant to know.” Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are working on cutting-edge genetic experiments. They’ve had a breakthrough but now their corporate masters have decided to draw the line. Their current work is useful and economical, and further research simply isn’t necessary at this time. However Elsa wants to go on, and does, adding human DNA to the mix. When Clive objects, noting all the laws against human experimentation, she points out that what they’re creating isn’t human.
What they’re creating is a new life form, dubbed Dren (played by Delphine Chanéac in its adult stage), and its one that is beyond the bounds of laws, ethics, or what they’re actually being paid to do. Clive, who is romantically involved with Elsa as well as being a scientist in his own right, is reluctant but allows himself to be dragged along. The story isn’t arguing for human ignorance, but for scientists to be aware of the implications of what they are doing and not pretending it’s just about the search for knowledge. One can hear the echo of “Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970) where Dr. Forbin argued that every scientist should be required to read Frankenstein.
Dren may not be human but she’s certainly humanoid, and how the scientists treat her – and respond to her – form the major ethical issues of the movie. Of course this is also a horror film. There are shock scenes and an ending that concludes the story but paves the way for a potential sequel, but what impresses between the jolts is the moral dilemma facing these characters. There’s one scene – not to be revealed here – that is supremely disturbing, and also completely driven by who these characters are and what they’ve done.
Brody and Polley are fine actors whose performances make this more than just a fright fest. We find ourselves caring for them while being appalled at the choices they make. In other words, we treat their characters as real people, not plot devices. As for Delphine Chanéac, this was a difficult role – how does one act “like” a mutant life form? – which she brings off with sensitivity and grace.
“Splice” will provide some summer chills for those who are just seeking a scary movie, but for those who want to think as well, it is a provocative movie about scientists acting without guideposts and paying for the consequences. It may not make many 10 best lists at year’s end, but it’s certainly the first summer movie that you’ll find yourself talking about – rather than complaining about – after the house lights come up.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.