'Splice' not a smart sci-fi thriller

Posted: Thursday, October 14, 2010

"Splice"

Gaumont

1 hour, 44 minutes

As happens from time to time, this was a pretty busy weekend and I wasn't able to get out to the theater. To be honest, I wasn't too disappointed about having to resort to the DVD shelves for a movie to review because the two new outings this week just didn't look all that appetizing. The first, "Life As We Know It," is a rehashed look-how-insanely-difficult-it-is-to-have-kids-but-oh-aren't-they-cute flick starring Katherine Heigl and one of the army guys from "Transformers." This plot has been filmed hundreds of times and makes it into just about every family/relationship movie ever made. The trailer said all I needed to know as you have to watch Heigl's character have so much trouble changing a diaper that she ends up wearing the mess on her face. And somehow doesn't notice. No thanks.

The other, "Secretariat" has prestige film written all over it, but didn't we already see this movie a few years ago with Tobey Maguire? Oh, right. "Seabiscuit." Eh. It just doesn't look all that great to me. Diane Lane playing it super-sincere and John Malkovich playing it goofy. Not interested.

Instead, I went with a monster movie, of sorts. "Splice" is a modern day retelling of "Frankenstein," but played to the tune of look-how-insanely-difficult-it-is-to-have-kids-but-oh-aren't-they cute. I told you that storyline was everywhere.

Clive and Elsa, played by a perpetually worried Adrien Brody and a perpetually oblivious Sarah Polley, respectively, are genetic bio-chemists, searching for potentially lifesaving and lucrative new chemical compounds in the blood and tissue of animals. Unique animals, as it turns out. The two scientists have created the world's first entirely new species by combining the DNA of several different creatures. Fred and Ginger, as the relatively amorphous blobs of tissue are referred to, have proved that it is possible to create life, and possible to make that life completely unappealing. The two ooze around their enclosure, occasionally sticking either feather-like tongues or cruel-looking spikes out of their mouths. Fred and Ginger may be breakthrough science, but they're definitely not sexy, so Clive and Elsa decide to take the next logical step: Let's secretly throw some human DNA into the mix and see what happens. Meet Dren.

Dren, or nerd spelled backward, is way cooler than either of her experimental ancestors, and quite a bit scarier as well. She starts out looking like some kind of a rat, but quickly grows into one of the strangest looking characters to grace the screen in a while. Her top half resembles a European super model, cool and slightly otherworldly, while her bottom half calls to mind an elongated satyr, with backward-facing legs and a tail equipped with a frightening stinger.

Much of "Splice" is either hackneyed or clich, but both the make-up and effects people, as well as the actress who plays Dren, Delphine Chanac, do an amazing job. She completely embodies the emotional and physical struggles that a creature, part human and part animal, might undergo. I can't speak to the "reality" of Dren. I'm sure it's 1 percent science and 99 percent fiction, but that's fine. Everyone else in the production, as well as the screenwriters, careen wildly from plausible to smack-your-forehead-stupid, but Dren gets it right, at least as an entertaining and well-drawn character.

The majority of the movie is about Elsa and Clive and their attempts to raise Dren and, whether this was intentional or not, plays as a clever parody of the aforementioned family flicks. Elsa, being the nurturing one, connects to baby Dren, nursing her through colic and spit-ups, and that terrifying moment that all parents go through when your infant's amphibious lungs become activated, requiring total immersion in a giant water tank. As Dren grows, however, mother and daughter inevitably begin to clash. Elsa wants Dren to be more compliant and behave like a lady, and Dren wants to stab Elsa with her stinger and escape to the great outdoors. Who hasn't had that experience? It's up to Clive to play peacemaker. This clever conceit goes well for a while, but eventually the filmmakers figure they've got to lure teenage boys to the theatre, so Dren has to discover her sexuality. It's at this point that the film really goes off the rails and never really recovers.

I enjoyed "Splice" as a kind of silly Saturday-matinee kind of movie. It's a little like the similarly themed "Species" of several years ago, although the gratuitous sex of that film didn't seem quite so icky. I was disappointed, though, because I had heard that the film was an amazing, smart science fiction thriller. This it was not. "Splice" has much more to offer as a trippy little family drama, but even in that it eventually stumbles. In fact, if the Dren character weren't so well-done, the movie would be easily forgotten as neither Brody or Polley are particularly likeable or believable. There're a few good thrills early on, and the effects are stellar throughout. But as things progress, the film gets steadily darker. The ending sequence is disturbing and bleak and leaves you wondering when it all stopped being fun.

There was potential, certainly, but the movie ends up going places I didn't want to go. I still have to believe, however, that it was better than "Life As We Know It."

Grade: C+

"Splice" is rated R for strong sexuality, language, violence, and gore.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.



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