[You may consider some of what follows to contain spoilers, but I’ve tried to avoid too many.]
“There are moral considerations,” says Clive (Adrien Brody) to Elsa (Sarah Polley) as they’re arguing over the course of the secret scientific experiments they are conducting. Breaking away from the roadmap set out for them by their corporate sponsors, they are trying to see how far they can go, just out of curiosity, with creating a new lifeform spliced with human DNA. The intricacies of this process are shown to using a montaged bunch of whip-pan, fast-cut sciencey bits (lots of wireframe models, scans, incubators and test tubes that give the impression that these tech people know what they’re doing), so that you can get beyond the how and focus on the what if? Moral considerations? Yes, there are. We know this, because we’ve seen other science fiction movies where people in white coats go a bit mavericky and “play god”. We know for instance that they will not resist their curiosity, will not abort the experiment, and that things will all go horribly wrong. Other clichés and conventions abound – the corporate end of the scientific complex will be populated with unscrupulous slimeballs, a woman chased through the woods will bang her head and fall over, and the cute little alien thing you just spawned in a lab will not stay sweet and cuddly forever. But this mash-up of familiar things hides its fair share of spikes, wings and stings.
The spliced creature, named Dren, herself goes through so many developmental stages that there’s always some new surprise ready to spring from her body. Her anatomy is the structure for the story, affecting the situation with each new growth: Elsa takes centre stage during the babyish early “years” (her growth is conveniently accelerated by a quirk of her genetic make-up), while Clive mopes and doubts until Dren slinks into sexual maturity. During her later life she’s played by Delphine Chanéac, who looks quite strikingly alien thanks to some fancy performance capture that rearranges the structure of her face (see this article from Popular Mechanics to find out more about how it was done; or try this one from Animation World Network; or maybe this one from Wired, since they’re mentioned in the film a couple of times; if that’s still too complicated, watch the featurette below). Chanéac certainly helps to make the character perversely erotic, but she tends to overact the role of the petulant child-creature, being volatile but winsome or victimised and morose, always telegraphing her emotions when we’re told that her “mind is a mystery”. Elsewhere, the film skilfully bats our sympathies back and forth, so a little more of that ambiguity in Dren’s role would complement those machinations more fully.
Films about monstrous babies are not really about monsters and science. That’s just a smokescreen – none of the science here stands up to much scrutiny, and its concern with chimeras and “bad science” is rather old-fashioned (confirmed by those heritage references to Frankenstein). Just as Rosemary’s Baby is not really about Satanism but about the way men feel about pregnancy, so Splice is about the strangeness of parenthood, the way it distorts a couple’s relationship and drives them to stress-fuelled acts of irrationality. At first, Clive wants kids, while Elsa wants to keep her figure and advance their careers, and for much of the running time, it seems to be building her up as a female monster, selfish, utilitarian, passionless and reckless with ethics. Clive’s brother urges him to stand up to her, hinting that the family history of female domination and male timidity runs deep. So far so normative, but the fun of this film is how much it relishes switching things around at regular intervals, and when Clive himself gets more “involved” with Dren, the critique of gendered nuttiness gets more complex, and you’ll find acts of nobility becoming fewer and further between. Parables of science gone wild tend to be message movies, and while the ostensible, official statement might be “don’t mess with genetic engineering”, at various points you might find yourself being lectured on the wrongs of woman, or asked to roll your eyes at the feckless lusts of man, or maybe forced to contemplate the shameful culpability of parents.
Although it goes off with a heightened, sometimes thunderously gothic sensibility as the sins of the mothers, then the fathers start revisiting the scenes of various crimes, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this is a serious-minded dissection of scientific adventurism. It’s a full-blooded B-movie, exploitative, proudly wearing its cultural allegiances to olden times on its sleeve; there’s those references to the Universal Frankensteins (the leads are named after Colin Clive and Elsa Lanchester of The Bride of Frankenstein), jazz (while trying to solve a genetics problem, the pair swap their European techno mixtape for some swingin’ jazz and immediately hit the eureka spot), Fred and Ginger (two slug-like organisms pioneered for the harvesting of genes and, er… cells and stuff to cure diseases or something, who get to do some very impressive dancing of their own together), and the lab’s incubator is emblazoned with a cartoon of Betty Page. It has that tasteless, throw-it-all-in aesthetic beloved of a good B-movie that wants to satisfy every whim of its niche demographic, and a pop-psychologist’s invocation of complexes both Oedipal, Electral and probably a few more for good measure. It is itself a spliced conglomeration of tropes, tricks and plot turns gathered from the science fiction gene pool. How much fun you have with it depends on your tolerance for knowing, smirking hybrids of convention and transgression.