The genetic engineering chiller "Splice" is a double helix of perversity.
Canadian director Vincent Natali borrows freely from his countryman David Cronenberg in this tale of suspense, sexual transgression and body horror (the term for films that find their disturbing effects in physical deformity, mutation or disease). Without Cronenberg's masterful way with visuals or his penetrating intelligence, the film's deliberately provocative premise is worked out in broad, lurid comic-book strokes, consciously calculated to shock the easily shockable and titillate the peculiar.
In this mad scientist yarn, Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play bio-researchers who are also life partners nervously dancing around the issue of having children. Clive and Elsa (whose names echo those of featured actors in "The Bride of Frankenstein" — the script has its flashes of wit) are more adventurous in the lab. They have synthesized a new life form that resembles a garden slug the size of a pot roast.
In pursuit of prestige and profit sharing (the pair have been featured in Wired magazine, and have their eyes on a sumptuous new loft) they secretly create a transhuman creature whose genetic makeup might yield new medicines. The dithering, morally ambivalent Clive can't decide if he wants to kill the creature; Elsa is as fiercely protective as a lioness.
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Their offspring Dren rapidly matures into a bald, lissome adult female mutant: Picture Sinead O'Connor with computer generated chicken legs and a tail with a phallic "stinger." To prevent her discovery by their prying corporate superiors, the pair raise her in a remote farmhouse, a location that unlocks a trove of disturbing memories from Elsa's troubled childhood. In their getaway the trio take the concept of family togetherness to unhealthy and unorthodox extremes.
Polley, a reliably impressive performer, covers a rich emotional range convincingly, while Brody repeatedly hits sour notes of overacting. The actress who wordlessly portrays Dren, Delphine Chaneac, responds, feral-animal style, to her co-stars. It's a challenging, provocative role, and she handles it well.
"Splice" deserves credit for a novel take on a familiar theme, and for aiming to disturb us by pushing the boundaries of behavior instead of unleashing buckets of gore. But it loses points for uninspired execution. With its dreary lighting, cable-TV-movie photography and shoestring sets, the film shouts "budget-strapped indie" from every frame.
The gravest failure of craft, however, comes in the writing. The film has no clear purpose, no lucid message. It dwells on grotesque sex but toward what end is never apparent. What allegorical force it does build up is dissipated by the cliched switcheroo ending.