After the maximalist blow-out of Inception last week, here's a specimen of genre cinema the way I like it: economical, ruthlessly to the point and decidedly unsettling.
Splice is an old-school science-gone-too-far chiller. Its director and co-writer is Vincenzo Natali, an American whose first two features oozed wit, invention and a talent for handling modest resources, rather in the mould of early John Carpenter. Natali's ingenious debut, Cube, was about some people who mysteriously find themselves trapped in a cube (and in some cases, actually are cubed – sliced and diced by booby traps). His futuristic spy drama Cypher played tricks with perception and identity in a way not unlike Inception, but with a fraction of the budget and stacks more humour.
Natali comes up trumps in equally no-nonsense fashion in Splice. It's the story of two gene-splicing scientists who create a new lifeform – a human/ animal hybrid that becomes a surrogate child to these earnest young Frankensteins in love. The couple, played by Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody, are named Elsa and Clive – after Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive, stars of the 1930s Frankenstein films. The duo are first seen presiding over a birth, cooing over the newly delivered issue – which turns out to be an inchoate squirming sack of flesh. It's the latest creation of these two whiz-kid geneticists, whose ultimate aim is to produce new proteins of benefit to humanity – although the sheer arrogant pleasure of playing God seems to be getting the better of them.
Elsa, the tougher and more driven of the duo, wants to go further and incorporate human DNA into their creations. The result is something to reckon with – another fleshy blob that emerges from ominously spectacular birth throes to pass through a bizarre series of mutations. It starts off as a flailing fish thing; comes to resemble an oven-ready chicken as painted by Francis Bacon; then very rapidly grows into something recognisable as a girl child, albeit with ostrich legs, pictured below. Resisting sentiment at first, Elsa then embraces it as a daughter and christens it "Dren" – reversing the cute initials of her and Clive's company, Nucleic Exchange Research & Development.
On an immediate level, Splice is simply an effective creature feature with a potent Freudian underpinning. But it also satirises the tendency of today's adults to remain overgrown children themselves. Less like adult lovers than narcissistic, (almost) asexual siblings, Elsa and Clive – who live in a flat filled with hip-cute-arty baby figures – are completely thrown by the new responsibilities thrust upon them.
The film is very funny in its dark jokes about parenthood and the horrible dawning realisations that come with the job: that babies are very noisy, demand endless attention and totally mess up your work habits. The funniest line – "We're biochemists, we can handle this" – could speak for the delusion of all new parents that no small, helpless creature could possibly be that hard to manage. But the more the couple come to behave like a mother and father, the more we sympathise with Dren: like that other misunderstood only child cobbled together on Dr Frankenstein's slab, she's simply the victim of irresponsible parenting.
Most originally, Splice contrives a new spin on cinema's traditional treatment of white-coated scientists. They may be obsessives who rarely leave the lab, but Clive and Elsa are new-breed boffins – self-conscious hipsters drunk on their avant-garde glory. Chic dressers yearning to acquire a "lifestyle loft", they pride themselves on being both scientifically and culturally cutting-edge: "Wired doesn't interview losers," Elsa boasts.
The film's attention grabber, however, is Dren, a protean vision whose genuinely perplexing qualities stem from the fact that she is literally a hybrid, cinematic as well as genetic: the balletically poised, eerily expressive creature on screen is a splice between CGI and a human actress, Delphine Chanéac. It's quite an achievement of Natali to keep us unsettled by Dren's strangeness when we've generally become blasé about digital marvels. Splice consistently plays on our uncertainties about the status of its alien creation – thing or person, "it" or "she", being or image. By the time Dren mutates into an elegant, strangely alluring woman-thing, she has acquired the atavistic glamour of the mythical femme-beasts: Lamia, Chimera et al.
Despite one scene of (altogether comic) gory excess, Splice is less about horror than about deep-rooted unease. Close to early David Cronenberg in its invocation of physical anxieties, Natali's film is creepier both about family relations and obstetrics than anything since that director's Dead Ringers. This Canadian-French co-production also has an authentic Cronenberg flavour in its mix of shock, yuckiness and forensic detachment, betokened by the ice-blue tones of Tetsuo Nagata's photography.
Splice itself eventually mutates into a straight monster movie with a bathetically botched climax. There's also a powerful streak of misogyny in the suggestion not only that working scientists don't make good mothers, but also that women make far, far madder scientists than men. But certainly Polley's Elsa, hardy and whip-smart, is a more imposing character than Brody's sensitive overgrown indie kid, feminised by a lank geeky haircut.
I've heard the complaint that there aren't many surprises to Splice but, in a way, that's part of the appeal – the sense of something dreadful waiting to happen and, sure enough, inexorably running its course. For some genre aficionados, Splice may just not be freaky enough but I found it altogether refreshing: science-fiction horror that's about ideas and taboos. It's honest, it's relishably perverse and it's a lot of (very uncomfortable) fun.
Jonathan Romney hits the Gitanes to watch Gainsbourg, a biopic of France's legendary singer, songwriter, and all-round roué