Splice is a science fiction thriller with grand ambitions, not of the special effects variety, but of the thinking kind. It arrives at the right time. With mankind perpetually on the brink of amazing genetic scientific discovery it seems wise to ask whether these are the kinds of discoveries we should make. And Splice wants to ask that question, it really does. But it never quite gets there and instead ends up examining a far less interesting possibility. Splice wonders not if we should make these advancements but whether or not we’ll screw them up.
This is the kind of movie in which the plot relies on people making the wrong decision. If Splice were a horror film, Sarah Polley’s Elsa character would be the kind of girl who insists on walking home alone at night, even though her friends have warned her there’s a serial killer on the loose. Adrien Brody’s Clive would be the sensible friend who tries, to no avail, to stop her and in the process finds himself sucked into her web of error. Where Splice diverges from the standard, horror movie formula is in the later act when, instead of immediately punishing the players stupidity by killing them, it keeps going and lets us watch when the protagonists are forced to deal with their incredibly stupid choices. Their mistakes change them and by the end of the movie Clive and Elsa are almost unrecognizable as the people we knew at the beginning, a beginning in which they were simply two scientists overeager to make a climactic breakthrough.
It’s the change in Clive and Elsa that makes Splice worth your time, watching them unravel as they try desperately to justify their decisions, find a way through what they’re doing, and ultimately just get out of it alive. Eventually both of them lose their moral compass and one foolish decision after another leads them into a world where right and wrong no longer seem to apply. Once you start playing god, ethics seem like just a word.
As interesting as that is, Clive and Elsa’s experiment gone awry is far less so. On a whim, they create a new lifeform, a lifeform who grows up into a very unpredictable, partially human girl. They call her Dren, as seemingly unaware that this is a horrifying name (If you’re trying to humanize a monster, you probably shouldn’t name it Dracula. Try Susan instead.) as they are unaware of her horrifying nature. It’s only one of many mistakes made along the way. Dren’s entire life cycle is a series of screwups made by Clive and Elsa, whom we’re told are brilliant scientists even though they act like anything but. All of their problems are, in the end, of their own devising. They are carless, they’re selfish, they’re indifferent, and worst of all they’re incredibly dumb.
It seems impossible to believe that two scientists who have spent their entire life studying something would know less about it than the average 14-year-old sitting in the movie’s audience. They’re repeatedly surprised by things they have no business being surprised by. Dren’s genetic development seems as though it’s always one step ahead of them and that just never makes any sense.
Because Clive and Elsa are so dumb, Splice lacks a sympathetic character. Dren I suppose has done nothing wrong, but she’s a mistake who has no business existing in the first place. Clive and Elsa, on the other hand, seem to deserve whatever happens to them and as the movie draws to a close you’ll likely find yourself hoping that everyone ends up dead. It’s hard to care about what’s happening, when you don’t care about the people it’s happening to.
Without Clive and Elsa’s stupidity there’s no story here and though Splice tries desperately to be something more, in the end it all hinges on characters doing the sorts of dumb things people only do in horror movies. Yet Brody and Polley’s performances are good and hint at the possibility of something better in a more tightly constructed script. And the production itself is smartly produced, edited, and shot. Dren herself is a creepy a design marvel and though sometimes the movie’s low budget CGI isn’t always up to delivering realism, the older Dren gets the less animation is needed and the more real she feels. Splice is a capable enough thriller, but it’s incapable of being something more, no matter how much it might wish for it.