Staring into her computer monitor, Elsa (Sarah Polley) sighs at the scrolling message: “Splice unsuccessful splice unsuccessful splice unsuccessful…” Frustrated, she turns to her lab partner and lover Clive (Adrien Brody), who makes the completely right assessment: they’ve been thinking in circles. How about if they put some jazz on the CD player? And have sex? And voila! When they return to that pulsing screen, the hitch has miraculously disappeared. The splice—of human and other material— is done.
And so Splice begins—with one of those contrivances that suck the science out of science fiction. In fact, this bit of metaphorical business keeps on giving, for the film presses hard on the well-worn connections between sex and birth, sensual desire and freakish ambition. But if Splice is upfront about its lack of originality—citing King Kong, The Brood, Species, and, um, Jeepers Creepers—it’s also okay with grinding its gears. There’s not really a moment here you can’t anticipate, but Splice just gets noisier as it goes.
The splice that popped up on the monitor, you know without anyone telling you, is illegal and not approved by the company employing Elsa and Clive (their names homages to the olden-days Frankenstein actors). According to their contract with Newstead Pharma, they’re developing non-human tissue blobs as living cell sources. Just as they’re directed to come up with a commercial product to justify their experimenting, Elsa realizes a couple of things: they’ll never be funded for the “medical breakthrough” she seeks and oh yes, Clive doesn’t want kids. Let’s just say her clandestine solution doesn’t help either situation.
The splice results in fetusy creature that develops chickeny legs, wide anime eyes, and a tail tipped with a poison stinger. As it develops a clingy-daughter-like personality, Elsa names it Dren (named for the lab where they work, Nuclear Exchange Research and Development/NERD, and played as a digitized child by Abigail Chu and then by Delphine Chanéac) and marvels at its ingenuity, apparent intelligence, and especially, its speedy development, from infant to teen in a matter of days. As she also resists Clive’s suggestions that they kill it, the two are drawn into an increasingly disturbing emotional-familial-psychic threeway with Dren: they play parents with alternating inclinations to evaluate and spoil their baby, and Dren plays an ever mutating combination of way-too-smart child, jealous sister, science experiment going very wrong, and object of lust and brute fear, sort of.
At last their secret is discovered—by Clive’s co-worker/brother Gavin (Brandon McGibbon). Theirs is a criminally undeveloped relationship, but it does highlight the film’s persistent poking at the idea of family: how it’s constituted, what members owe one another, how it assumes structures of loyalty and betrayal, and most importantly, how it establishes and undermines moral orders. For as Dren works its makers’ nerves much as any offspring might, it becomes devious, manipulative, and monstrous. That Elsa and Clive don’t see this—or remain willfully blind to the plot emerging in front of them—they start looking less like brilliant researchers and more like stalker film victims, making one wrong choice after another.
It won’t surprise you that one set of these choices is premised on Elsa’s bad relationship with her mother. You don’t learn abuse details, but by the time she and her new family decide to hide out at the farm where she grew up, it’s clear enough that this past affects her profoundly. Now the film turns into something like a psychological study: as Elsa and her man both pretend they’re being objective, focused on name-making science and maybe also curing diseases, they’re really plunging deep into her family history, her needs, and her own manipulations.
And so, Elsa spends long hours away from her job and with her baby-doll, teaching her to spell (first word: “tedious,” as in, her hidden-away life in the barn and, increasingly, her movie) and wear makeup. That is, Elsa’s relationship with Dren is now full-on troubling, damaging to both mother and child-project and of course to Clive, who slips into tragic victim mode without much resistance. Splice turns out to be interested in all manner of social perversities passing as norms, from nuclear families to gender prescriptions to the unregulated relationship between research and money. As Elsa turns steely and ballsy (and her science turns stupid), Clive turns feeble and neurasthenic.
Clive’s weakness here is frankly pathological, as well as enabling, opportunistic, and not a little dim-witted. When the obvious truth of Dren’s genetic material is revealed, Clive’s visible shock only underlines that he hasn’t been paying attention. “Was this ever about science?” he asks—at which point you just want to advise him, “Keep up.” Both he and Elsa are punished, as much for their obtuseness as for their hubris (and bad science). Her undoing is patently cynical and unclever, set in a dark wood suitable for her Last Girl standing. But if Elsa’s punishment is of a piece with Splice‘s obvious joking throughout—its other-movie references and cultural critiques, its arrangements of scares, gore, and allusive raillery—it’s also pretty abject. Even as the movie interrogates specious morality, it clings to it too.