Splice, Vincenzo Natali, 104 mins (15)

Wit, satire and a good dose of Freud permeate this relishable sci-fi horror about two Frankenstein scientists and their eerily expressive hybrid child

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.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney hits the Gitanes to watch Gainsbourg, a biopic of France's legendary singer, songwriter, and all-round roué

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test