You know that you’re in for a wild ride when the film begins with a point-of-view shot of a genetically synthesised organism being born in the world. The ‘parents’ of this manufactured life form are Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) and Clive Nicoli (Adrian Brody), a hipster scientist couple widely celebrated for their research in gene splicing. When their work is threatened they covertly cross the forbidden ethical and legal barrier to include human DNA in one of their experiments. The result is the creation of a new creature they name Dren. As she rapidly grows, matures and goes through puberty, Elsa and Clive are confronted with their conflicting ideas of her as an experiment, a surrogate child and a sexually aware being.
Splice is not a David Cronenberg film but it comes closer to capturing the sensibility of Cronenberg’s films from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s than anything Cronenberg himself has done in the past decade. From Shivers to The Fly to eXistenZ, the films of the Canadian auteur have explored ideas of science kick-starting evolution, sexual transgressions and bodily horror with a distinctive flair for visceral gore and pitch-black humour. All of these elements flourish in writer/director Vincenzo Natali’s Splice; a glorious blend of science-fiction, horror, melodrama and psycho-sexual thriller.
Previously best known for his 1997 low budget science-fiction thriller Cube, in Splice Natali demonstrates how well he can work with big budgets, known actors and challenging material. Splice is at times genuinely frightening with early scenes evoking the unknown terror of Ridley Scott’s original Alien film. The uncanny strangeness of the infant Dren also strongly recalls the nightmarish ‘baby’ in David Lynch’s Eraserhead. The concept of mechanically reproduced life and the film’s perverse representation of ‘child birth’ are confronting and taboo breaking, and in Splice Natali does everything that he can to make the audience squirm, tremble and laugh in a mixture of disgust, dread and wicked delight.
Underpinning the stylish production values and moments of shock are strong characters and engaging writing. What holds your attention throughout Splice is the changing sympathies you constantly have for Elsa, Clive and Dren as they all constantly shift from positions of being the aggressors to being the victims. Splice is science-fiction/horror at its best, underpinning its daring moments of bodily horror and sexual anxieties with flawed characters to care about and moral issues to wrestle with.
Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 360, 2010