Splice (2009)

Outside of the distinction of having directed a segment of the excellent Paris, je'taime (2006), writer and director Vincenzo Natali delivers a break-out vehicle with Splice. I see that he is in pre-production on a project called High Rise and, if it's the film companion to J.G. Ballard's fantastic novel, I'm excited for this filmmaker's future.

This film has a lot to recommend it, not the least of which is the fact that it's an R-rated horror film with very strong actors at its core. I'm not as crazy about Sarah Polley as many of the critics whose work I admire, but she does manic well and she does driven well. She gets a chance to show both in this one.

It also stars Adrien Brody, who is one of my favorites. Strangely enough, after doing films as diverse as Harrison's Flowers, The Pianist, The Jacket and The Darjeeling Limited, he does this one and is in the summer gorefest Predators. He's got great chops and clearly is comfortable going the chameleon route on us. I admire the choices he's made, and in this one, he does some stuff on camera that is...well, it's an awfully strange movie.

Brody's Clive Nicoli and Polley's Elsa Kast are brilliant, dedicated young scientists. They're toiling in the corporate labs, synthesizing enzymes and proteins and what-not and occasionally messing around with complex human-animal experimentation. When they decide to go rogue and take their experimentation to the next level (the threat of a lab closure is the pretext), they go where they shouldn't.

The film dabbles in a few cliches. It has the obligatory close-up on the scientists eating Chinese take-out and pizza. They work long hours, floating stuff and looking at the computer. It's all very scientific. They proudly where their geek creds on their sarcastic t-shirts.

And it's not until about forty-five minutes into the film that we see some real humanity in the whole thing. Nicoli and Kast are romantically involved. He wants a kid, she's scarred by her mother's mental illness. So when they can't decide for sure on whether they want a kid the old-fashioned way, we get Dren (nerd backwards--get it?)...

Dren is a curiosity--a partially human, partially bestial creature played by Delphine Chaneac. Chaneac is awesome. She emotes in a few scenes in a way that is just heart-breaking. You see, the crux of the film is not the experiment on the creature, but the experiment on the creators. How will they behave, these scientists with their ethical lines and human conceits? Nicoli and Kast have to reconcile their roles as creators and parents in this one and, despite her bizarre characteristics and deadly tail, Dren is a sympathetic character. She is what she is, and it's hard not to want to love her. It's hard not to feel sad for her when she wants to roam the woods outside of her prison. It's hard not to feel a moment of pride when Kast uncovers the drawings she's made of them in her spare time.

I had no idea about the sex. It came out of left field for me and, when it started, the audience was laughing.They laughed because they were nervous. It's unsettling. That's the mark of, at the very least, an interesting and memorable film. You don't know how or why it's happening, but it surely is, and it makes for a hell of an interesting third act.

It's nicely paced and nicely played. A solid 'B' on this one, with the obligatory sequel nicely prefaced in the final sequence of shots. Splice is that rare Hollywood gem: a horror movie that delivers the goods, delivers them for adults, and does it with style and craft.

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