Thursday, June 3, 2010

'Splice,' the experiment fizzles

Is this what they mean by designer genes?

Say this about Splice; it's not your average evening at the multiplex. This biologically based thriller promotes a strange form of uneasiness, the kind of queasiness that results from watching the creation of life in all its slimy, uncontrollable splendor.

In the world of Splice, life becomes a lab creation. Thanks to gene splicing, the research team of Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) invent a creature they later name Dren, which is nerd spelled backward.

Dren's creation follows on the heels of another startling invention. At the movie's outset, Clive and Elsa put a new form of life on display, naming their genetically engineered creatures Fred and Ginger, indistinct blobs that look nothing like their elegant namesakes.

Perhaps taking its cue from its artificially bred creatures, Splice feels fresh and unfamiliar - at least in the early going. But director Vincenzo Natali provides some early clues that his creation might not be able to sustain its novelty.

At one point, Clive - tormented by ethical issues and fearful that things are veering out of control -- suggests that maybe the best thing to do is put an end to Dren, who in her early stages looks reptilian and ... well ... flat out ugly, a little bundle of slime, bone and ligature. Don't fret; she becomes more exotically beautiful as the movie progresses.

"Wait,'' says Elsa, "There's still a lot we can learn."

Yeah, like how to come up with a better line of dialog.

Faulty dialog or no, Polley's Elsa stands as the movie's most interesting character. She pushes Clive to intensify their research. She urges him to forget company rules. (Of course they work for a corporation with an eye on the bottom line.) Elsa wants Clive to defy conventional morality, and she begins to treat the fast-maturing Dren as if she were her child. When Brody and Polley relate to the problems caused by having a new species around the house ... er ... lab, the movie plays like a whacked-out take on bringing up baby.

Had Natali pushed a little harder in this direction, he might have made the hippest, funniest movie of the year, a biological comedy that in itself could have qualified as a new species of movie.

Tonally, though, Splice veers all over the place, verging from funny to tense to a little scary. And as much as the movie seems to want to step onto the cutting edge, it gets mired in concerns that border on sci-fi generic: What are the moral obligations of scientists when it comes to genetic research? How far should men and women go in tampering with life? Are Clive and Elsa just plain loco?

Mixed as its achievement s are, Splice keeps us off balance, looking a little ludicrous here, a little eerie there, a little serious on a third glance. Natali probably could have stabilized things had he given his characters more background. As it stands, Clive is just an ordinary dude who happens to know a lot about genetics. Elsa has a more intriguing past. Turns out her mother was insane and abusive.

Brody does as much as he can with an underdeveloped character with a fondness for plaids; Polley manages the movie's most suggestive performance, and three cheers (or maybe two-and-half) for the designers of the creature that grows into Dren, played as a big-eyed adult by Delphine Chaneac.

At its best, Splice mixes creepiness and craziness in its big-screen Petri dish, but its best doesn't go quite far enough. In the end, Natali abandons psychology, inquiry and weird trickery for a more conventional series of "thrills," most of which are telegraphed by the time they roll around. Too bad.

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