"Was this ever about science?" Adrien Brody's character, Clive Nicoli, asks Elsa, played by Sarah Polley, in Vincenzo Natali's newest film Splice. I would like to pose the same question to director Natali and his co-writers Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor. Was this movie ever meant to be about science? Because I have to wonder why a film so ostensibly about science spends its runtime doing nothing but showing complete contempt for it. Natali and his cohorts take an interesting premise and run it straight into the ground, without regard for character, plot, or yes, science itself.
Clive and Elsa are in love. They're also biochemists (so we're told) who run a lab called "NERD" (seriously) and have developed two new organisms called Fred and Ginger using an amalgam of DNA from other species. The purpose of Fred and Ginger (who look like cancerous tumors that have been unwillingly removed and set free to make their own way in the world) is that they naturally produce proteins that will help cure all kinds of diseases. All seems well and good until Elsa declares that the next step is to make a creature that possesses human DNA, claiming that "if we don't use human DNA now, someone else will!" Of course, by that logic, someone else already has. But I digress. After being told firmly and condescendingly by their financial benefactors that they won't fund a new organism that incorporates human DNA, Elsa and Clive spend an exhausting three hours mish-mashing new DNA strands together until they got something that looks like what someone in Hollywood thinks a complete genome should look like. Their only purpose, of course, is just to prove they can do it, but Elsa gets impulsive (in the first of many irrational and unscientific acts that seem to point to the fact that Elsa is not just emotionally unstable, but also completely insane) and decides to gestate this new creature in the lab's artificial womb anyway.
The fetus grows rapidly, and despite the fact that it has a venomous barb on its tail, Elsa takes a liking to it. Calling the creature Dren (NERD spelled backwards; don't worry, this rather obvious fact is spelled out--literally--in the least subtle way possible), Elsa and Clive decide to keep it alive for study. Each day she grows, looking more and more human as time passes, but showing remarkable abilities, like breathing underwater and in the open air (making her the only creature in the history of the world to be able to live for long periods completely submerged and completely dry), and showing off a series of fins that she can extend and retract. Unfortunately, her presence makes it difficult for Elsa and Clive to concentrate on Fred and Ginger, or their daily lives in general, and soon she has to be moved to an abandoned farm where Elsa grew up. There, Dren begins to exhibit nasty behaviors, and soon the lines between science and morality blur.
Splice isn't a bad idea, even if it is derivative of more enjoyable films like Species. But even a good premise can't save this movie from the poor choices that start almost immediately. After a brief introduction to Fred and Ginger (which already pushes the boundaries of good science), the film immediately lays on the melodramatics, turning both Elsa and Clive from scientists to rock stars, making them out to be the bad boys of biochemistry. When told that they can't make creatures with human DNA (not because it's ethically questionable, but because it wouldn't sell well in the press), the pair immediately go to work on making that forbidden genome. The problem is, something like that would take decades. Since we didn't see the origin of Fred and Ginger, we can at least presume that their genetic recombination was a matter of painstaking trial and error over years and years. Not so with Dren, whose DNA is cooked up in what looks like the time it takes to play two cassette tapes. That's not science. It's not even science fiction. It's just lazy writing. Once Dren is born, Clive and Elsa are constantly surprised at what attributes she's exhibiting. As if they themselves didn't choose exactly what DNA was going into her. I mean, I'm not a PhD, but I know what a genome looks like, and I know what it means to map it. You can't just throw random segments of DNA together and make it stick, not knowing how it will turn out. Apparently these basic facts escaped Natali, because the movie hinges on Clive and Elsa not knowing a thing about Dren's development.
But let's face it, most movies have bad science in them. Why am I picking on this one? Well, if the bad science were the only flaw in the film, I could forgive it (while still wagging my finger, of course). But that isn't the case. The characters are terribly written, either being completely one-note (NERD's PR director or pharmaceutical liaison or whatever he is plays every scene exactly the same, as does Clive's perpetually stoned-seeming brother) or they change motivations and behaviors on a dime. Elsa is particularly guilty of this, changing gears so abruptly and so often that it makes me think the film's message might just be "Bitches be crazy." Clive comes off as more reasonable (although in a way that seems to suggest that men are far better suited to do everything than women), but even he tends to oscillate between extremes. No wonder Dren gets so confused over the course of the film.
The film has one saving grace: Delphine Chaneac as Dren. Despite having no dialogue, Chaneac makes Dren expressive, alive, and interesting. And even though she's buried under layers of makeup and CGI, she's still pretty cute. Sadly, the film's third act writes the actress out completely in favor of a pointless and momentum-killing twist that anyone could see coming a mile away. Even more annoying is that it's utterly useless. The writers could have given us a much cooler ending that retained Dren's sense of femininity, but they couldn't be bothered.
I had high hopes for Splice, but Natali and his team manage to take all the fun, all the logic, all the science, and all the quality out of a potentially good idea. Don't waste your time.