by Jef Burnham
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Splice, from Canadian filmmaker Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Cypher), is a visually rich and thematically challenging sci-fi movie about the scientific and ethical implications of genetic engineering. Natali presents something of a worst-case-scenario in regard to the science as biochemists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), whose experiments in splicing animal DNA have spawned a miraculous pair of “state-of-the-art designer organisms,” continue their work behind closed doors when they look to include human DNA into their mixture. Thus they create, in secret, an incredible, animal-human hybrid, named Dren. The resulting tale is something of a psycho-sexual horror/thriller, but with Clive and Elsa’s strained relationship at the core of the narrative.
The film owes much to the work of David Cronenberg, given Natali’s propensity in Splice for utilizing grotesque practical creature effects and unsettling scenes of graphic, monstrous sexuality. Yet, again like the films of Cronenberg, there is a light side to Splice as well, and a tenderness to much of Clive and Elsa’s early approaches to raising their monstrous surrogate daughter. As such, one never quite knows what to expect from the film from one moment to the next, as the narrative evolves rapidly in tandem with its subject (Dren). In terms of characterization, Natali approaches Clive and Elsa as though they were every bit the science experiments Dren is, with elements of their histories and personalities revealed to us sporadically and suddenly throughout, relieving the strain of lengthy expositional dialogue from the screenplay.
In comparison to Cube, the only Natali feature I had seen prior to Splice, Splice is an enormously ambitious picture (which is saying a lot, as Cube is no trifle of a movie itself). In its ambition, however, Splice often feels loose structurally, but, as I mentioned before, this looseness may be related to the narrative mirroring of Dren’s evolution, so it’s hard to fault Natali for this. On the other hand, the art design in Splice is superb in every respect, from the creatures to set design to the costuming, even. For the creatures, and Dren in particular, Natali employs a delicate combination of CG and practical effects, utilizing the CG only where absolutely necessary. The result is a creature that feels more rooted in real world physics than say, Cameron’s Na’vi; and the Blu-ray release perfectly highlights just how wonderful the effects are.
Unfortunately, the release includes but a single special feature that, while excellent as a behind-the-scenes featurette, barely touches on the film’s production off set and offers not a word on the film’s reception with audiences. Natali only briefly discusses the film’s special effects and its challenging thematic content (and even then, he only mentions the latter in reference to the difficulty it caused in securing funding). Still, the featurette, aptly titled “A Director’s Playground: Vincenzo Natali on the set of Splice,” shows just how incredibly passionate the filmmaker is about his work.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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