In the new film Splice by Vincenzo Natali, Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley star as two laughably trendy biochemists who design new creatures for pharmaceutical research. Sarah Polley decides to take their research to the next level, without the permission of the company and against the will of her boyfriend, Brody, and she creates an organism using a strange amalgam of DNA. The result – which they call Dren – is not unlike a human baby that they have to raise, only it has a few extra joints, an oddly shaped head, and is about as deadly as the monsters from the Alien saga. As the creature continues to grow, the difficulties mount, culminating in a few sequences that are uncomfortable and disturbing.
Just as the humanoid monster/creature in Splice is a hybrid creation made from genetic material, the film is a generic hybrid of science fiction, melodrama, the thriller, and campy horror films. Splice, at its best, does manage to pull off these different registers. As a science fiction film, it is, admittedly, derivative of earlier films such as Species from 1995 and of course Frankenstein. But all the same its theme of genetic research financed by greedy pharmaceutical companies is timely. Splice might make us wonder just how our newest medications are developed.
As a thriller and a horror film, Splice is for the most part effective. It does not go for the big, jumpy scares that last summer’s Drag me to Hell pulled off so well. But it does unnerve its audience and at times even shocks them – on a moral level. The audience laughed during Splice, as well, and that is part of what makes it a fun movie. Splice is self-conscious; it knows that at times it is asking us to really stretch our credulity, and it knows that it gets to be over the top. It seems to acknowledge that, at this point in the evolution of scary movies, a film that does nothing but frighten is no longer possible. Audiences are too aware of the conventions of horror for that to happen. In one sequence of Splice, the creature spells out the word “nerd” that shes sees written on Sarah Polley’s shirt, which gives Polly the idea to name it “Dren” (the reverse of “Nerd”). This is the film’s self-effacing, self-mocking wink.
It is perhaps as a domestic melodrama that Splice is the most interesting. It becomes apparent early on that Splice is a thinly veiled allegory about the anxiety and pressures of parenthood and its effects on a relationship (and in this sense, it recalls David Lynch’s Eraserhead, a film that Lynch said spoke to his worries about becoming a father). Brody and Polley become like the parents of their creation, which they name Dren, and at times the situation somewhat resembles the real situation of parents. They fight over how to raise her, they educate her, they punish her – in short, they go through the motions of parenthood. But at a certain point it changes from a weird domestic melodrama to a deranged domestic melodrama that is not suitable for children. It becomes a science fiction version of Todd Solondz’s Happiness.
Generic hybridity can only go so far, however. At their best, films that hybridize genres and conventions do so in such a way that these genres and conventions are exposed and investigated and often revealed as artificial. There is a long history of American cinema that mixed different genres, from the classical era on. What makes some compelling and others not is whether they become more than the sum of their parts. Dren, the human hybrid, does just this: whatever it is exactly that makes it up, it is a force to be reckoned with. Splice as a film is not like Dren, and as entertaining as it may be, it does not transcend its parts.