'Splice,' the twisted family sci-fi horror film made of awesome

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 4:31 PM EST

Most sci-fi/horror films are genetic monstrosities that combine the worst of their genre parents. Usually the science fiction is just an excuse to whip up a monster or, worse, a mere setting (e.g., the spaceship as haunted house) and the horror is tedious slasher stuff, with a bunch of Z-listers having their heads lopped off while wearing lab coats.

If we're lucky, some empty phrases about an evil corporation (a stand-in for the movie studio, 100 percent of the time!) are thrown in for a little of that "social commentary." But Splice is the rarest of creatures; its hybrid vigor, energetic direction and surprisingly thoughtful performances make this film one of the best creature features in decades.

Clive and Elsa—get it, get it?—played by the game Adrien Brody and the incomparable and underrated Sarah Polley—are masters of the splice. The young marrieds work for a lab somewhere in Massanewyorjersey (well, or Canada, but Clive never says "oot" or "aboot") and live the life that only hipster biochemists can. Giant manga panels over the bed for Clive and purple camouflage T-shirts for Elsa; when the two of them work together, a peppy little montage shows us that science can be fun!

Really, until the creature shows up, Splice feels quite a bit like a Real Genius remake or something. The geniuses have created hybrid organisms to synthesize patentable medicines, but they want to take it a step further and add ... dun dun DUN ! ... human DNA to the mix, which is against the foolish, misguided law. Anyway, it doesn't go well, as nothing involving humans ever does. If you've seen the poster, you've seen the monster, but indeed you've not seen anything yet.

Nothing can stop science, so the couple spin off a little firm on the side that they call Nucleic Exchange Research and Development. (NERD, get it, get it?) Their artificial womb is decorated with a Bettie Page sticker. And the result of their experiment is, at first, a mix between an anxious chicken and one of those hypoallergenic bald cats that always creep me out, but it soon grows into a learning, "evolving" daughter of sorts named Dren. (Nerd backwards! Get it, get it?)

The scientifically minded might be concerned that Splice is nothing but tedious anti-science and anti-hybrid propaganda, but there's nothing to be worried about. Splice is no more about the dangers of biotechnology than Men in Black was about immigration reform or The Human Centipede was about prostate exams. Splice is really a film about parenthood. Beautiful, deadly, terrifying, exhausting parenthood.

Sci-fi is often at its best when the science-fictional elements tie into the emotional experiences of the characters. For Clive and Elsa, having a child is the natural next step in their relationship, but Elsa's abusive past and Clive's arrested adolescence stand as near-insurmountable obstacles. We do get to see one of the best sex scenes ever in a commercial film, though. Dren's rapid growth gives the couple all the pain and even some of the joys of parenthood. Baby won't eat, the child has a fever. Then she starts learning so quickly—as a teen Dren swims in angst and tries to fly from the nest (almost literally), and those old Freudian impulses we still snicker about to better deny their existence develop along with the hyrbid's body. Also, Dren has a stinger in her tail and some other biological surprises to go along with her new urges. Hell, with slightly different lighting, some peppier incidental music and a touch less blood spray, Splice could have been a chick flick.

Indeed, in less capable hands Splice would have been ridiculous. Once the CGI is swapped out for Abigail Chu (as the child Dren) and the amazing Delphine Chanéac (teen Dren), the movie takes off. Brody and especially Polley have plenty to play off against—Dren and the family dynamic are explored naturalistically, with a minimum of sci-fi technobabble and horror-movie cringing. Clive and Elsa's need to hide Dren and keep up a façade of normalcy is also handled well, when it could have easily devolved into Lucy-and-Ricky shenanigans or boring travel scenes that just fill time. Director and co-writer Vincenzo Natali, who was responsible for Cube, one of the better sci-fi films of the 1990s, is a master of bringing together a high concept and a small cast.

The last act brings horror, but it's not the usual sort of monster-gone-mad thing you'd expect ... well, except for a few minutes near the end. Instead, a more primal set of transgressions—both the Elektra and Oedipal complexes—emerge. Splice is as dreadful as anything, especially when Dren grows up and gets ready to act out her own unnatural natural drives. Leave the kids with a sitter, or hell, donate their awkward little bodies to science, and go see Splice.