There’s a template for movies like “Splice.” It’s been done a hundred times, dating back to “Frankenstein,” and goes like this: genius mad scientists overstep the bounds of conventional morality and secretly create something amazing and dangerous. They know they ought to destroy their creation before it hurts anyone, but can’t bring themselves to do so, either out of hubris or sympathy or some mix of the two. Then eventually, the creature starts killing and destroying, and it’s up to the mad scientist to take it down.
“Splice” is evidence that good movies can be made from old formulas. Generally, a movie that follows the “Frankenstein” formula succeeds or fails based on what happens between the moment of creation and the moment of destruction. “Splice” milks that tension giddily; there is so much time between these two moments, and so many fake scares and interesting twists, that the whole experience is thrilling and fun.
The genius scientists are husband and wife team Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley; the writers of “Splice” smartly capitalize on the ways that, in the 21st century, innovative scientists can take on a sort of cult celebrity status. They present their latest creation, a genetically cloned creature that is medically useful, at a forum similar to the one Steve Jobs used to present the new iPad. But they are also funded by a corporation more interested in the bottom line than in creative innovation, and when their lab gets channeled away from the fun experiments toward more lucrative projects, they make one last-ditch, late night effort to create a creature that contains human genes (spliced with many others; hence the title.)
Adrien Brody might be the more recognizable name on the movie poster, but it’s Sarah Polley who really carries “Splice.” She is the more intelligent and creative scientist of the two; Brody spends most of his time playing Watson to her Sherlock, trying to keep up and offering mild, mumbled protestations. Naturally, she is also the mad one, and her madness is smartly written. Instead of cackling Colin Clive style, Polley demonstrates sociopathic behavior; she decides what she wants to do, then spouts platitudes that are basically true (like “science always involves risk” and “no guts, no glory”) in such rapid succession that, even when she’s wrong, she’s almost impossible to argue with. (This strategy has gotten people elected to public office with surprising frequency.) Brody is dominated by her personality and unable to keep up. This is madness; make no mistake. Moreover, it is dangerous, and one of the thrills of watching “Splice” is the growing sense that this mad scientist is the real horror, the monster in the room capable of destroying anybody and everything that gets in her way.
Brody and Polley succeed in creating Dren, the semi-human creature they were hoping for. She is just human enough to inspire sympathy, and just inhuman enough to illicit horror; director Vincenzo Natali plays these two off each other for a remarkably long time. Brody and Polley become parents, of a sort, and another of the joys of “Splice” is just how many darkly humorous insights it bears into the delicate art and complicated work of parenting; the give and take, the love and discipline. I suppose it doesn’t matter if you’re parenting a scientific abomination or a beautiful child, the challenges are (roughly) the same.
It’s true that in its final act, “Splice” leaves the smart, funny high ground it’s maintained and descends into the bizarre, ridiculous, and just plain icky. Strangely, it does this so quickly and purposefully it feels like Natali is poking fun at his audience for getting so wrapped up in such an inherently ridiculous story. I suspect that many people who watch this film will only remember the strange things that happen in the final thirty minutes or so. But leading up to the big nasty pool of weirdness is a lot of smart writing, prickly suspense and deep, dark humor. I didn’t much like the ending. But I like just about everything leading up to the ending. And that makes “Splice” a movie I’d happily pop in the DVD player again.