Scary genes, good jeans
If it’s discouraging — or at least disorienting — to see that Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley have signed on to a gnarly work of science-fiction horror, lighten up. They have good taste in schlock. It’s true we see neither of them often enough at the movies, but “Splice’’ will more than do for now. The film, which Vincenzo Natali directed and co-wrote, has several good ideas and the sort of fine surprises that happen only when the director has nerve.
Brody and Polley play Clive and Elsa, a couple of rock-star genetic engineers (that’s them on the cover of Wired) who’d rather please themselves than obey the ethical cloning concerns of their corporate bosses. (The lab is called Nucleic Exchange Research and Development — or NERD.) Clive and Elsa are partners in life and at work, and genetics obviously doubles as their baby. That metaphor gains specificity after their gene-splicing technology produces a creature that develops from scurrying tumor into the sort of hot, bald, semi-reptilian woman — played by Delphine Chanéac — you’d expect to see in an campaign for alien couture.
They name the creature Dren and hide her away at a wintry country house that belongs to Elsa’s family. The movie is committed to showing Clive and Elsa make science while dressed like two people standing behind the turntables at a German disco. Dren develops like a fetus growing outside the womb, going quickly from pet to child, from child to seductress. How do you feed her? She wants “high-sucrose foodstuffs,’’ Elsa reports. “But her mind remains a mystery.’’
Not really. Dren grows violently bored with her barn life and in one nice sequence appears biologically equipped with a means to escape. The movie’s best instincts are all parental. Elsa had a complicated relationship with her own mother; and Polley smartly, quietly taps into the exasperation of becoming someone you don’t like, be it the woman who raised you or the women whose careers are their families. Indeed, while Clive goes to work, Elsa stays home with Dren, who, much to Elsa’s disgust, is a daddy’s girl. Mom is forced to be the disciplinarian, confiscating pets and raising her voice.
The movie begins to run out of gas as it racks up a body count, but even the mad-scientist and I-created-a-monster clichés are contorted satisfyingly enough. Natali directed a good little horror film in 1997 called “Cube,’’ which was a proto-“Saw.’’ He’s moved on to slightly more sophisticated intellectual climes and, from the looks of the effects and art direction in “Splice,’’ a bigger budget. But Natali has brought with him his elemental interest in human nature and enthusiasm for David Cronenberg. (With this film, “Repo Men,’’ and “The Human Centipede,’’ Cronenberg is more in vogue than ever.) “Splice’’ even appears to be situated in that director’s chilly Canadian wilderness.
Happily, Natali is his own director. He locates a kind of strain of godly narcissism lurking in many science-fiction pursuits. “Splice’’ doesn’t overextend its reproduction allegory. But regarding Clive and Elsa, Natali does leave room for unanimous conclusion. These two should have adopted.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.