"Splice": One crazy test-tube mutant of a movie

Though Sundance-screened and sporting an upscale cast, writer-director Vincenzo Natali's Splice has a mad science quality. He has crossbred a self-serious psychodrama and a queasy creature-feature, and unleashed this malformed freak on the world.

Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are Clive and Elsa, a married couple of "rock star" genetic engineers. Not since Hackers have such pains been taken to make a tedious, sedentary undertaking seem extreme: They crank the boom box in the lab, decorate their apartment with huge manga canvases, and show up to work dressed like they've just come from a rave in Cologne.

Childless and married to their work, Clive and Elsa are introduced midwifing the birth of a lab-grown, undulant, maggoty sack of tissue, which we'll soon observe in a mating tango that'll put you off your popcorn. Their very gross R&D produces medicinal proteins for sponsor Newstead Pharma. When blocked from taking this research further by corporate higher-ups afraid of public outrage, they decide to tamper in God's domain for the good of all mankind, and toss a soupçon of human DNA into their recipe.

Delphine Chanéac as the mutant Dren.
Delphine Chanéac as the mutant Dren.

Details

Directed by Vincenzo Natali. Written by Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, and Doug Taylor. Starring Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Brandon McGibbon, Abigail Chu, and Delphine Chanéac. Rated R. Opens Friday at San Francisco theaters.

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What winds up in the incubator is an H.R. Giger cocktail-napkin sketch, a massive spermatozoon ending in an obscene glans, glistening with ... possibly soy sauce? This pupae hatches a walking skinned rabbit, which develops into an increasingly humanoid girl with a wicked cleft palate — Abigail Chu plays the preadolescent critter —growing until "it" is enough of a "she" to require a proper name (she's christened "Dren") and homespun hand-me-down dresses to wear.

Though he'll more than accept their adoptee in time, Clive is understandably creeped out at first by his wife's coddling treatment of Dren. Polley's glowing reaction shots while nestling with her mutant toddler make a deadpan joke of parents' indifferent pride over whatever they've hatched, as Splice becomes a parody of parenting. In spite or because of the portentous, gathering-clouds London Philharmonic score and accumulated Freudian gibble-gabble, Splice is a queerly funny movie, attuned to the absurd. Natali never drops his poker face, but you can't tell me a moment like the Big Presentation where the front row of suits gets splattered like a Gallagher audience isn't supposed to be a knee-slapper. Of Splice's various primal scenes, that's-just-wrong coitus interruptuses, and ridiculous lines delivered with unfailing conviction ("Was it ever about science?"), I am less certain of the intention. Whatever the case, watch with the right audience, and you'll have a party on your hands.

The film's first half is claustrophobically confined to austere corporate offices and fluorescent-lit subterranean labs populated by sallow scientists, including Clive's brother (Brandon McGibbon — having hair like a Goo Goo Dolls cover band member apparently runs in the family). Once Dren grows to full size and is at risk of being discovered, the makeshift family retreats to the Southern Ontario Gothic farmhouse Elsa grew up in. Developing at an accelerated pace into her terrible teens, Dren makes runaway attempts and throws tantrums — frightening, given her stinger-tipped tail and powerful, multihinged legs. Delphine Chanéac plays the full-grown Dren, with a stubbled scalp and slanted, widely spaced eyes. At peace, her blissy idiot grin recalls Björk.

Mapping out Splice's DNA isn't too difficult. Aside from Species, its near-anagram antecedent, there's a touch of David Lynch in Dren's bawling-Eraserhead-baby phase, while the ambiguous glass-box corporate parks and squishy horror are early David Cronenberg. Clive and Elsa name their tube-grown gutbags after famous couples (i.e., Fred and Ginger), while their own names pay homage to Bride of Frankenstein actors Colin Clive and Elsa Lanchester. (Whether a writer should be relating to his characters the way they relate to their lab work is another matter — and may explain why Natali's close-ups of Brody at his most pained aren't quite moving.)

The detailed imagining of Dren's life cycle and Splice's one-upping make the movie mortifyingly fascinating, and its spell lasts right up until the junk heap of a grand finale — did the projectionist platter a reel of Jeepers Creepers 3? — topped by a capstone that will please only those people who are gratified when they can guess a twist ending well ahead of time.

 
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