June 4, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Tom Long Film Review: 'Splice' -- GRADE: A

Review: Innovative sci-fi horror film 'Splice' veers into sexual psychodrama

Tom Long reviews 'Splice'
Tom Long reviews 'Splice': Tom Long reviews 'Splice'

Daring, disturbing and deliciously twisted, "Splice" is an innovative jolt of a movie arriving as it does in the midst of the somewhat formulaic summer blockbuster season.

A sci-fi horror film that knows rules are made to be broken and then broken again, this film still adheres to many of the genre's dearest conventions -- the monster as innocent, humans as the real terrors, the price of messing with Mother Nature -- while nudging its narrative ever outward in astounding ways.

What starts out as a modern "Frankenstein" ends up in uncharted sexual-psychodrama territory. Take that you silly vampires.

The first indication that this isn't your typical scare flick comes in the casting. It's not often you find an Oscar-winning actor in this sort of genre film, but there's Adrien Brody ("The Pianist").

Even more impressively, there's actress-director and Oscar-nominated writer Sarah Polley alongside him. Polley ("The Sweet Hereafter," "Go," "My Life Without Me," she wrote and directed "Away From Her") may be the most reliable talent in film -- if her name is attached it's probably worth seeing.

The two play Clive and Elsa, supremely successful nerd scientists, famed for their work with genetic material, including splicing together the DNA of different animal species. Their work for a giant pharmaceutical corporation has been groundbreaking, but their extensive laboratory is about to be taken from them as the push comes to turn their discoveries into moneymaking applications.

Knowing time is running out, Elsa decides to take the plunge with the one experiment that is forbidden -- the mixing of human and animal DNA. To the couple's surprise, the experiment works, and soon a creature like no other is born and growing at an exponential rate.

The girl -- who has characteristics of a bird and an amphibian as well as those of a human -- is dubbed Dren (that's nerd spelled backward). As played by Abigail Chu when young and the French actress Delphine Chaneac when grown, the creature is an innocent who begins exhibiting intelligence early on and then takes on social characteristics.

Meanwhile, Elsa and Clive themselves are slowly revealed through their interactions with Dren, and the audience's sympathies take to ricocheting between the three characters -- everyone's vulnerable, everyone's imperfect, everyone's hurting. Everyone's a monster.

Splice was written by Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor and directed by Natali with such a sure, human hand that it's easy to wonder why he isn't better known (he's actually a Detroit native who made 1997's "Cube").

One of Natali's best decisions was not to lean completely on special effects for Dren. Chaneac especially brings an empathy to the creature that no computer could.

The topicality of the subject matter is indisputable -- there are probably more scientists sneaking around labs with test tubes of mixed DNA at this very moment than anyone wants to admit. But at the same time, the classic matter of man messing with mortality makes the story applicable to any audience of the past century.

The great thing about "Splice," though, is that Natali goes beyond the science and makes the drama as human as it is ethical. These aren't just people pushing us into a brave new world; these are seriously messed up people pushing us into a brave new world.

And that, of course, is always the problem.

tlong@detnews.com">tlong@detnews.com (313) 222-8879

Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody's genetic experiment has gone awry in "Splice."