[Screen It]

(2010) (Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley) (R)

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Sci-Fi: Hoping to find a cure for any number of medical maladies by combining the DNA of multiple animals and plants, two young scientists take that to the extreme when they mix in some human DNA and must then contend with the unlikely hybrid creature they've secretly created.
Clive (ADRIEN BRODY) and Elsa (SARAH POLLEY) are genetic researchers and live-in lovers employed by Newstead Pharmaceuticals. They work for Barlow (DAVID HEWLETT), along with Clive's brother, Gavin (BRANDON McGIBBON), in combining animal and plant DNA with hopes of the result creating medicinal and scientific breakthroughs. When they successfully create two large, hybrid grub-type creatures, Barlow shuts down their experimental research to move on to the second stage of retrieving something marketable from them.

Elsa isn't happy with the development, and thus she and Clive continue to experiment on the sly, including throwing some human DNA into their next mix. The result, another hybrid creation they nickname "Dren," is like a small, hairless child with bird-like legs and a poison-tipped, prehensile tail. As she quickly grows from toddler to young girl and then into a teen, Dren (DELPHINE CHANEAC) becomes ever more human due to her contact with her pseudo parents who keep her hidden away from the world, first in the basement of the lab and then at the abandoned farm where Elsa grew up.

Yet, her hybrid nature presents unique and unexpected challenges that the couple must contend with, developments that quickly progress from troubling to downright dangerous.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Back in the 1970s there was (a now very antiquated-looking) TV commercial for Chiffon margarine where an otherwise pleasant looking woman in a white gown and wearing a flower headdress suddenly becomes perturbed that the butter she's tasted isn't actually that. She stands, her pleasant demeanor turns angry, and she states, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature." That's followed by a flash of lightning, a clap of thunder and the view of a raccoon covering his face.

It was supposed to be a joke in an era when humankind went crazy with synthetic creations, but now serves as something of a cautionary message in hindsight (since many experts now say butter is better for you than margarine). Of course, such "you better look out" tales have been around since the beginning of storytelling. And one of the better known, most famous, and oft-repeated ones is that of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster that was stitched together from dead body parts and then reanimated as a whole.

I'm no Mary Shelley expert and have no idea what served as her catalyst for the story (beyond the old story of Prometheus -- which many forget is the novel's subtitle), but I'd guess it probably had something to do with the burgeoning Industrial Revolution that was changing many aspects of human life at the time. Using machinery and science, her protagonist broke the laws of nature by creating something unnatural, and then paid the price for doing so.

Considering all of the publicity about the Human Genome Project, the controversy about cloning and all other aspects of rapidly developing and some would argue out of control genetic experimentation, it's no surprise that a modern day Frankenstein story is now afoot, and it arrives this week in the form of "Splice." Yet another cautionary tale about messing around with the natural order of things, this one goes a little further than a lightning bolt and critter covering his masked face in terms of the repercussions of fooling with Mama Nature.

In keeping with the times, the monster here is created not by old-fashioned stitching and an electrical jolt from above, but rather through mixing together the DNA of different species in a Petri dish and then seeing what the result might be. That ends up being a young girl who quickly grows into a teen with all of the usual hormonal issues, not to mention that she has bird-like, bent-backwards legs, retractable wings, and a prehensile tail that just so happens to be tipped with poison. Try telling her she can't take the car to the mall!

Working from a script he co-wrote with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor, director Vincenzo Natali has crafted an intriguing, sometimes funny and occasionally intense sci-fi thriller. But it's also uneven, perhaps a bit too preoccupied with paying homage to Shelley and James Whale's interpretations of the creating life story when not feeling a bit like the second coming of "Species" (the 1995 sci-fi flick), and ultimately succumbs to the tired third act conventions and requirements of the genre.

Along the way, however, it's something of an entertaining if wacky and then outrageous ride, with Natali throwing in some fun twists on the old material, while also deploying some nice directorial flourishes and shot selections. Stars Adrien Brody and Sara Polley manage to somehow combine the essence of a serious sci-fi pic with that of a goofy monster flick and do so without missing a beat, even if their character motivations in the aforementioned third act start to feel too forced.

But the real star of the show is Delphine Chaneac as the hybrid creature. Accompanied by state of the art special effects as well as terrific make-up (it's often hard to tell which is being deployed in terms of her face -- the wacky bent-backwards legs are easier to discern), the French actress believably creates a parent's worst nightmare -- a moody and hormonal teen who could put a serious hurt on you -- and makes her a compassionate being in the process. Most impressively, she does so without uttering a line of dialogue (at least, that is, until a slightly unexpected twist toward the end that follows a barn romp that should go down as the craziest and/or most disturbing sex scene of the year).

If anything, the film's own splicing together of various cinematic genre elements -- cautionary sci-fi, thriller, goofy monster movie, Frankenstein homage, etc. -- means it ends up like the creature within it -- a hybrid that's fascinating yet ultimately flawed. But at least it stands out to a degree from the sequels, remakes and TV to movie adaptations that have taken over the cineplex. Those are the films that are deserving of the pitchforks and torches. "Splice" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed May 11, 2010 / Posted June 4, 2010

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