In May this year, the controversial geneticist Craig Venter oversaw the creation of the first ever synthetic life form, created entirely in a laboratory. It seemed that, for once, real life and science were one step ahead of Hollywood. Not for long though. With Splice, writer-director Vincenzo Natali has taken the idea and run with it, though perhaps not in the direction you might expect. The result is a horror movie that begins by dwelling on modern ethical dilemmas in science, yet fails disappointingly to sustain the contemporary relevance. Natali creates moments of genuine shock and even grotesque beauty, but these are lost all too often in the dull predictability of this modern Frankenstein tale.

The plot focuses on two scientists and lovers, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), who begin a secret project of ‘splicing’ human DNA with their previous hybrid creations under the self-delusion that they seek to cure diseases. They name their creation Dren, and its rapid growth and learning abilities ensure that it soon becomes a surrogate child to the couple, though the harmony of this warped family unit fairly quickly begins to fall apart. The casting here is fairly left-field, particularly in the case of Brody: though he acts with confidence, it is fairly baffling to see the Oscar winner involved in what is essentially a big budget B movie, and his considerable talents do seem wasted. Sarah Polley is equally solid, though her face is strangely distracting – she seems to be some kind of illegitimate lovechild between Julianne Moore and Uma Thurman. Perhaps genetic splicing is to blame. Unfortunately, the characters here are fairly one dimensional (a flaw which the cinematic con known as 3D would do nothing to rectify), as Natali foolishly resists the convention that the best horrors share of slowly and patiently building up characters and tension, as was so effective in films such as Alien and The Descent. The film is far less compelling, or even frightening, as a result.

Natali clearly knows his horror, however, and fills Splice with references to a huge variety of classics, including the aforementioned Alien, The Fly, and Rosemary’s Baby. Indeed, much of the film’s strength lies in its focus upon Elsa’s warped maternal instincts and the creation of a distorted and very Freudian family unit; it is in these moments that a pervading sense of creepiness infects the film to great effect, and it becomes an extremely skilful and intelligent horror movie, particularly in its surreal exploration of Carl Jung’s Electra Complex. Unfortunately, such moments are all too rare, and the film often seems utterly unsure of itself. Its biggest flaw is, ironically, a lack of horror – an element generally considered to be fairly crucial in the horror genre. Instead, much of the film is disappointingly bland, even banal. The script, directing, cinematography and score are all solid, but none of them exceptional. Natali might know his horror classics, but he fails to demonstrate the skill required to make one.

Originally published by Cherwell Online, 21/07/2010.

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