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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

The Canadian director Vincenzo Natali had a cult hit with his gory 1997 sci-fi thriller "Cube." His new film, "Splice," features Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as scientists who create and attempt to manage a constantly transforming part-human life form.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Creating new life, it's a messy business - so said Mary Shelley in the early 19th century in "Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus." You'd think, given all the gene-mapping and cloning around, that horror movies would be lousy with Frankenstein scenarios - cautionary tales in which technology outpaces our understanding of how to use it. But mostly we get splatter, torture porn, lame remakes. In that context, Vincenzo Natali's "Splice" beckons to us like a luminous laboratory beaker, an alluring new brew.

It's set in Toronto and owes much to David Cronenberg, especially his films "The Brood" and "The Fly." Throw in "Splice" and you have an Ontario subgenre: faceless, sterile modern settings, wintry and blue-lit, in which new kinds of flesh are grown or hatched.

In "Splice," Canada's own Sarah Polley and long-faced Adrien Brody play Clive and Elsa, celebrated nerdy researchers for a pharmaceutical company - called, in fact, NERD, for Nucleic Exchange Research Development. When we meet them, they're delivering a new life form from a pulsing ovum in an incubator - a giant, wormy mass from which they hope to mine all kinds of patent-worthy medical processes.

But then company bigwigs put the kibosh on future research. Use what's there and generate capital, they command. That's when Clive and Elsa think: Why not mix in human DNA and see what grows? After a lot of tinkering, the implant takes. The fetus - a kitchen sink of species - comes quickly to term. And then we hear the words immortalized by Colin Clive in the 1931 film of "Frankenstein."

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Ms. SARAH POLLEY (Actor): (as Elsa) It's alive.

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Mr. ADRIEN BRODY (Actor): (as Clive) Get out of there. I'm going to gas it.

Ms. POLLEY: (as Elsa) Wait. You'll kill it.

Mr. BRODY: (as Clive) Elsa, get out. Okay, I'm hitting the gas.

Ms. POLLEY: (as Elsa) I'm not going to hurt you.

Mr. BRODY: (as Clive) In three, two, one...

Ms. POLLEY: (as Elsa) Clive, I said don't.

EDELSTEIN: Clive is about to gas the lab and kill the infant creature, but to stop him, Elsa has whipped off her oxygen helmet. That's the first sign the couple will approach this child from different angles.

What's endlessly fascinating in "Splice" is trying to get a handle on what the creature is. Elsa calls it Dren, nerd spelled backwards, and it's seemingly female.

Now it's a pile of flesh with eyes on either side of its head. Then, quickly, since its growth is accelerated, it looks humanoid, albeit with other components, from amphibious to avian - plus a long tail with a lethal spike. It has no language you'd recognize - clicks and rattles and chirps.

When Dren makes too much of a racket, Clive and Elsa sneak her down - she's wearing a cute little dress - to the facility's dank basement.

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Mr. BRODY: (as Clive) Open the door. Just stop it. Shh. I'm starting to feel like a criminal.

Ms. POLLEY: (as Elsa) Scientists push boundaries. At least important ones do.

Mr. BRODY: (as Clive) Yeah. Sticking to a few rules isn't always such a bad idea either, you know.

Ms. POLLEY: (as Elsa) Nobody is going to care about a few rules after they see what we have made.

Mr. BRODY: (as Clive) See what we've made? Is that what you just said?

Ms. POLLEY: (as Elsa) Yeah.

Mr. BRODY: (as Clive) Nobody can see what we made.

Ms. POLLEY: (Elsa) Don't you think the world is going to want to know what's next? Do you think they could really look at this face and see anything less than a miracle?

EDELSTEIN: You know no good will come from this, right? But the way in which it all goes bad has a distinctly human dimension. It turns out that Elsa, so militantly maternal, had an abusive mom - and as Dren grows over a couple of months and becomes more assertive, like a mischievous child and then a rebellious teenager, something dark and scary in Elsa takes hold. And Clive, who wanted to destroy Dren, begins to soften. Soon this high-tech "Frankenstein" acquires a vein of freaky, low-tech Gothic psychodrama.

Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are thoroughly convincing when their characters are smart, and only slightly less so when they turn crazy-dumb. The Paris-born actress Delphine Chaneac plays the maturing Dren with help from creature effects designer Howard Berger, and she has her own mythical beauty. Her head tilts, birdlike, as her wide almond eyes take in her new world.

I'm sad to say the climax of "Splice" is too rushed. But if gene-splicing can give us monsters as poetically strange as Dren, it bodes well for our horror movies - if not necessarily for our species.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

You can see several clips from "Splice" and download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. You can also join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

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