The kid’s not alright, and neither are the scientists who cooked her up in “Splice,” a perverse peek into parenthood that doubles as an extreme cautionary tale about the perils of bioengineering. Benefiting significantly from the casting of Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as geneticists torn between experimental ethics and love for the mercurial monster they’ve created, director Vincenzo Natali’s outlandish sci-fier sustains a grotesque and funny fascination throughout its slightly protracted runtime. Though not outright terrifying enough for hardcore horror fans, “Splice” could play nice at the B.O., with properly devious marketing that doesn’t spoil too many secrets.
Easily the sexiest genetics researchers on the planet, lovers/lab partners Clive (Brody) and Elsa (Polley) have had great success recombining DNA from different animals to synthesize potentially life-saving proteins, and are eager to take the next step and “incorporate human DNA into the hypertemplate.” But they hit a wall with their corporate masters (David Hewlett, Simona Maicanescu), who rule against further experimentation in favor of a less controversial, more immediately profitable next step.
Not one to let the bottom line hinder scientific progress, Elsa defies orders and Clive’s protests and engineers a human-animal embryo whose gestation proves remarkably brief. The thing that pops out is a bald, vaguely humanoid female with amphibious gills, a stinger-equipped tail and, as it turns out, amazing cognitive powers and physical abilities.
Clive wants to terminate the sucker, but Elsa, who pointedly doesn’t want to have children of her own, insists on keeping the specimen alive, and even names her Dren (“nerd” spelled backward). As the two study their mute mutant’s rapid growth while trying to keep her a secret from the rest of the lab, the line between observational detachment and parental affection is repeatedly crossed in surprising, giggle-inducing and insidiously creepy ways. As the pic mutates from “Frankenstein” into “Mommie Dearest,” with a side order of “Rosemary’s Baby,” viewers who can suspend their disbelief may find “Splice” an unexpectedly plausible portrait of a relationship in crisis — at least, before its pro forma action climax and ironic but derivative denouement.
Played as a child by Abigail Chu and as an adult by Delphine Chaneac — with a huge assist from special effects designers Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero (who developed 11 different creatures for the film) and visual effects supervisor Robert Munroe — this splice girl is a bizarrely beautiful beast, commanding both pity and awe. At times resembling a cross between Gollum and Sinead O’Connor (or perhaps one of Nicolas Roeg’s “Witches”), Dren leaps and flies with lithe, animalistic grace, yet remains pathetically earthbound by the lusts and emotions common to the human species.
In classic who’s-the-real-monster-here tradition, scribes Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant and Douglas Taylor cleverly play out the dire consequences of Clive and Elsa’s actions, revealing the selfish humanity beneath the dryly professional veneer. While Chaneac is the main attraction, Brody and especially Polley, who showed her horror chops in 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake, more than hold the screen opposite their CG-enhanced co-star.
Long-gestating Canadian-French production, conceived not long after the 1997 indie success of Natali’s labyrinth thriller “Cube,” displays big-budget polish from top to bottom; the exec-producer involvement of splatter maestro Guillermo del Toro should help drum up commercial interest. Sound design, from Dren’s whimpers and hisses to the telltale heartbeats on the soundtrack, is highly expressive.