Review: 'Splice'

(Three stars)

In a way, myth became reality when the ancient Greek concept of a chimera -- a monstrous mash-up of different animals -- became standard terminology in biology, describing genetic hybrids. The temptation to tinker makes scientific advancement possible, but it's also, in a way, the story of mating and reproducing. Playing God and playing house converge in the weird, wild new horror film "Splice."

Co-writer/director Vincenzo Natali ("Cube") has in "Splice" a demented combination of "Frankenstein" and "Species" wherein a large part of survival of the fittest means being sexy. A little sexiness doesn't seem to have hurt celebrity scientists Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley), first glimpsed lording over genetic research from the cover of "Wired." Sharing a bed and a lab, the couple gets off on breeding chimeras in the hopes of synthesizing life-saving proteins. On the birth of their latest creation, they show a parental affection. "He's sooo cute!" Elsa coos, though the audience will gleefully recoil at the phallic beast squirming in its incubator, a baby only David Cronenberg could love.

A reversal of fortune spells either abandonment of the research or, as Elsa reasons it, secretly ramping it up in closed-door sessions. Choosing the latter with all the fervency of the archetypal mad doctor, Elsa breaks the ultimate taboo by creating a human/animal hybrid "splice" using her own DNA. Apparently unfamiliar with the concept of "famous last words," Elsa asks, "What's the worst that could happen?" Commence rubbing your hands with glee, horror fans.

Using the lab equipment of the Nucleic Exchange Research & Development facility (that's right: N.E.R.D.), Elsa "births" a chimera she calls Dren ("nerd" backwards). Elsa's ambivalence about children (no to Clive, yes to Dren) has something to do with her own domineering mother, but she bonds with her creation, cuddling with her and teaching her. Clive warily takes note of this two-way imprinting, but he's having none of it. Elsa assures him that there's nothing to fear: Dren wasn't bred from predatory animals. "Well, there's the human element," he replies.

Soon Dren is full-grown, in the lithe form of French-Canadian actress Delphine Chaneac. CGI and the special makeup and creature effects of Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero give Chaneac bird-like legs and a barbed tail, but they're not enough to rob the creature of its increasingly emboldened sexuality (might it be the mate-and-kill type?). It's probably not such a good idea for Clive to give Dren a dance lesson, but then again "Splice" dramatizes one bad idea after another: What's one more?

Lending their own brands of heft, Brody and the inestimable Sarah Polley make a meal of the material, which is about as gonzo as the multiplex gets. Natali knows he's way out on a limb and likes it there, giving the audience as many squirmy thrills as he can cram into 103 minutes.

Rated R for elements including strong sexuality, nudity, sci-fi violence and language. 1 hour, 43 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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