By: Kevin Kelly, reposted from the Sundance Film Festival 1/27/10
These days, movies about geeks have to accomplish a lot to pass muster, because ever since the nerds and geeks were let out of the closet, they've invaded every facet of our existence, including people who write about movies. This is probably why I enjoyed Splice so much, although in the effort of full disclosure, I was biased going in because I'm a big fan of director Vincenzo Natali's other films, which include Cube, Cypher, and Nothing. Cube became a bit of a cult hit on DVD, but Cypher only appeared briefly in theaters here, and Nothing had an even smaller release.
It's a shame because Natali is a great visual storyteller, and Splice shows just how much he's matured as a director, and this movie also has the added boost of being executive produced by Guillermo del Toro. It's also Natali's first foray into using so much CGI in a film, particularly in a way that isn't just used as a background enhancement or something you see only briefly. Throughout the film, the creature borne out of Splice is fully created out of and/or enhanced by CGI, but not in a manner that distracts you from the story at hand. It's impressive at how quickly you'll bond with the creature as an audience, and the movie takes you on a fun (and disturbing) ride.
Splice is about two scientists (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) who work at a genetics research laboratory (Nucleic Exchange Research and Development, or N.E.R.D.), and they've successfully spliced the DNA of several animals together and created a new, sluglike lifeform they affectionately name Ginger. After several failed attempts, they also succeed in creating a male, who they name Fred. Together these two creatures represent a possible boon for the parent company that owns N.E.R.D., creating and patenting cures for multiples diseases and conditions, synthesized from proteins found in the new beings.
However, because people in movies will never learn not to mess around with genetics, something happens. Their project is so successful, that the company is going to focus on Fred and Ginger, rather than attempting to splice humans as well. Impetuous Elsa (Polley) decides to take matters into her own hands, and has a human ovum ready and set to be spliced. Clive (Brody) protests at first, but he agrees and their secret project is off and running at a record pace. It's not long before their artificial birthing chamber B.E.T.I. (this movie loves acronyms) is alerting them that something is wrong, and they rush back to the lab where ... some thing is born.
The thing that gets spit out is at first as ugly as a naked mole rat, but as it quickly gestates outside the womb, it manages to become cute. Creepy, but cute. Clive is resistant to the project, which they have to keep hidden since splicing humans is a big no-no for legal and moral reasons, but Elsa quickly falls in love with the creature and names her Dren (nerd spelled backwards). It's not long before they have to move her out of the labs, since she's in danger of being discovered, and they relocate her to an old barn where Elsa used to live as a child.
Dren grows with breakneck speed into something resembling an attractive bald women who has been grafted onto a pair of kangaroo legs, complete with a prehensile (and deadly) tail. As she develops a rudimentary understanding of English, she starts acting out towards Elsa, while Clive begins growing closer to her. There's a lot more that happens here, which leads to an ending with a surprise that I didn't see coming. Just suffice it to say that Natali cranks the Creepy Factor up to 11 in this, while taking you through a bizarre plot that nearly outpaces itself as quickly as Dren does.
The film is shot very well, between the grungy digs at the genetics lab where assistants blast rock music while studying chromosomes, to Elsa and Clive's vinyl toy-filled and anime-inspired artsy apartment, and then on to the rustic and foreboding barn that becomes Dren's lair. Polley and Brody both are terrific as usual, but it's really Delphine Chanéac who shines with an incredible performance as Dren. She's so expressive and emotive with every cock of her head or movement of her eyes, and she completely sells you on the idea that this is a near-human creature who has been created in a lab. This movie would fall completely apart if she wasn't so believable.