A film review by Craig J. Koban October 20, 2010


2010, R, 104 mins.


Clive: Adrien Brody / Elsa: Sarah Polley / Dren: Delphine Chaneac / Gavin: Brandon McGibbon / Barlow: David Hewlett

Directed by Vincenzo Natali / Written by Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant and Douglas Taylor

SPLICE is a film that begins with ambition and intelligence and then devolves into mind numbing stupidity.  I say that this sci-fi horror film is ambitious for the ethical quandaries it hones in on regarding biotechnology, human cloning, and the dicey relationship between corporations and the scientists that rely on financial contributions.  Yet, for all of its serious undertones and an opening act that begins with promise, SPLICE quickly degenerates into just another conventional, clichéd, and dull monster fright fest.  Worse yet is that the film becomes really, really stupid. 

This film is the poster boy for the “Idiot Plot Syndrome”, which film critic Roger Ebert once famously describe as "any movie plot that contained problems that could be solved very easily if all of the characters were not idiots.”  Now, films that have imbecilic characters that make equally imbecilic choices are easy enough to swallow, but SPLICE contains two main characters that are, for lack of a better word, nerds – they are brilliant genetic engineers that are able to test the boundaries of DNA research and cloning, but outside of their professions there are borderline dim-witted for the choices they make during the story.   I guess what is ultimately unsavory is that we have a pair of very likeable and very talented actors that, for inexplicable reasons, are playing very brainless characters making very brainless decisions.  SPLICE should be viewed at a future date in screenwriting classes as a textbook example of how protagonists jump across Grand Canyon-sized chasms of illogic in ways that only movie characters – not real flesh and blood human beings – would. 

The “simpletons” of this “don't mess with Mother Nature” sci-fi parable are lovers and professional colleagues, Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, given completely dependable performances amidst the insanity of the script) that have been painstakingly working in corporate sponsored labs to decipher the secrets of genetic splicing that may or may not have pharmaceutical implications.  Their early attempts at splicing the DNA from different animals to create their own unique creatures results in two slug-like entities that look like Mini-Me versions of Jabba The Hut without faces, which, inane as it seems, really appears to excite their business backers.  Clive and Elsa feel that they are being pigeonholed into working with limited means and ideas and they desperately want to take their theories and concepts to the next logical phase – they want to insert human DNA into their genetic splicing experiments to see what comes out.  How could this possibly be a good idea?  They claim that using human DNA would help them unleash new understandings into diseases that plague humans, but judging by their early sloth-like monsters that they created, this seems like a hopelessly veiled promise at best. 

Their boss (David Hewlett) shoots down their efforts to tamper with human genetic material, which seems sound enough as it is, but Clive and Elsa are too headstrong and perseverant to stop while they're ahead.  Within no time, the pair begin to test-tube and manipulate a new hybrid creature using human DNA that is born from their own homemade womb.  The monster that is birthed is hardly a bundle of cuteness and joy; it initially looks like a small featherless chicken morphed with a dog and a human baby.  Yet, they discover that the newborn – which Elsa affectionately names “Dren” ("nerd" backwards) is that it begins to grow at an abnormally high rate.  Plus, the more it matures the more human it begins to appear, that is if you ignore its long, hinged bird legs, spike tipped tail, and a shrieking voice that only a mom – or two nerdy scientist – could love. 

These opening sections of the film chronicling the birth of this…this…thing…are involving and creepy, but soon after Dren makes an appearance SPLICE’s narrative soon collapses into festering ridiculousness.  Now, Clive – a begrudging participant in the human DNA trickery at first – wants to get rid of Dren right after it’s brought into the world, but Elsa begins to exhibit some twisted mother/daughter bond with the creature, which may be an extension of the couple’s attempts to have children of their own.  She convinces Clive to let Dren live so that she can learn more form it, but its presence in a multi-million dollar lab is anything but inconspicuous.  No fear, though, because they lock her in a lab while not there, which seems like the least secure manner to keep an animal-human cloned monster incognito from your colleagues, let alone security.  I dunno...I would be guarding this thing 24/7 myself, but I digress.

It gets sillier.  As Dren grows up Clive and Elsa begin to notice some interesting developments, like the fact that it can breathe underwater, has the ability to sprout wings and fly, and can communicate very aptly using Scrabble letters (and not made up words either!).  As the creature begins to grow up and evolve evenmore, Elsa and Clive begin to realize that they can’t possible keep her locked up in the lab any further.  As a result, they sneak her out of the lab in a large box - no, seriously - and then decide to secretly hide it away at the safest location possible… 

…Elsa’s family barn. 

Yes.  A barn.  A creature that has a venomous and deadly stinger on its tail that showns violent tendencies and can fly most likely out of any window or opening has been secured away…in a family barn on a farm.  This is a borderline moronic choice lacking in even a scintilla of common sense, which would have been all the more excusable if Clive and Elsa were dummies, but we are led to believe that two incomparably intelligent scientific minds that knew the kind of inherent danger that Dren presents to world would find a barn as a suitable place to lock her away.  I am no expert in barns or agricultural buildings for that manner, but if I were harboring the most polarizing – and potentially dangerous - scientific creation of all time then I would find a more secure location to hide it.  Call me nuts.   

The screenplay goes absolutely ape-shit nutty from this point: For reasons never fully explained, Clive – a character that originally despised Dren and what it morally represented so much that he wanted to kill it – has become sexually attracted to it, so much so that he does the no-pant’s dance with it, which predictably culminates with Elsa conveniently and accidentally witnessing them during their inter-species humping.  I am not sure where to go from here, other that to say that Dren becomes a more vile and oppressive force in Clive and Elsa’s lives, which leads to them deciding to terminate their “baby” once and for all.  Yet, when Dren goes through a radical…how shall I say it…lifestyle change during the film’s climax that makes it more disturbingly hostile than ever, it appears that it will need to be stopped before it wreaks havoc on the world. 

Let me get this off my chest again: I hate using this descriptor, but SPLICE is a regrettably dumb movie.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.  This is all the more shameful because it contains some solid performances by Brody and Polley, who are utterly thankless here, and the visual effects and Howard Berger's virtuoso creature makeup are resoundingly top notch.  The director of the film, Vincenzo Natali, creates early moments with a spooky and macabre tone; he makes a sci-fi/horror genre film as great looking as any other that I’ve seen recently.  And, as stated earlier, the film opens with a pledge to intrigue on its ethical and moral conundrums that the scientists face while engaging in their riskiest experiments yet.  I got the impression that this would be nifty revisionist portrayal of the classic FRANKENSTEIN morality tale about mad people of science playing the role of creator. 

However, for as smart and crafty as SPLICE assures itself to be early on, I just could not get over the idiotic choices made by idiotic characters that are supposed to be smart.  Why on earth would Clive and Elsa feel safe leaving their unique creation with unknown physical abilities and powers and an unchecked emotional spectrum…alone in a dreadfully unguarded barn?  These people are able to create life out of almost nothing, but are complete fools lacking common sense in terms of knowing what to do with their offspring when it becomes a problem.  Wouldn’t you want to take a more cautious and shrewd approach with the single greatest biological and scientific achievement in history?  I mean, really...wouldn't you?

If the Herculean mindlessness of the characters were not bad enough, then what of Dren itself?  The film presents Dren mostly as a perplexing enigma and curiosity and, ultimately, just another freakish monster from the horror genre factory.  The film complete sidesteps oodles of tantalizing questions regarding this creature, like does it think and feel like a human, because it’s part human, after all?   What goes on in its hybrid, mashed up brain?  Why does it developed a strong sexual urge to mate with what essentially is her surrogate father?  And, why does Dren – as revealed in two scenes – like high fructose-laced junk foods and cats?   

In an interview promoting the film Natali stated that the goal of SPLICE was “to create something shocking, but also very subtle and completely believable.”  Ummm…okay.  The first part is kind of true:  SPLICE has scandalous moments, to be sure, but where it's really lacking is in the subtle and believable department.  The dramatic underpinnings are here to make for an effective morality tale on scientific advancement and discovery allowed to go to unethical limits, but SPLICE is too beleaguered by the crushing weight the "Idiot Plot Syndrome" to be taken seriously at all.   It only shows that the most stimulating themes and ideas in the screenwriter’s handbook are for naught when you overwhelm them with characters that behave in head-slappingly incredulous ways.  SPLICE is a rarity: an intriguing film of contemplative ideas without a brain in its head.  

Smart sci-fi flicks should not be so dumb.

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