After jumping into the story a bit too fast and forcing the actors into their roles too quickly, director Vincenzo Natali manages to find a rhythm and proceeds to pack Splice with as many themes as a feature-length movie can hold. Hotshot researchers Clive and Elsa (their names give away their scientific project: an actor named Colin Clive played Henry Frankenstein in James Whales’ 1931 Frankenstein and Elsa Lanchester was the monster’s bride in the 1934 follow-up) are way too cool and egocentric to be able to think about more than their work when they, more or less accidentally, manage to clone a human being.
What initially looks like a penis with legs quickly turns into a child-like creature, and they are ill-equipped to handle the moral and ethical implications of their success. As personal problems cloud the couple’s judgment (Clive looks at the creature with near-homophobic disgust while Elsa uses it to work through her past as an abused child and her mixed feelings about motherhood), Brody and Polley manage to keep their characters sympathetic, even as they are verging on becoming monsters themselves.
Natali makes much out of a small budget; the effects take a backseat to a gripping relationship drama and an intelligent posing of the old nature vs. nurture question. While Clive and Elsa go through all the phases of parenthood at an advanced pace with their experiment (or offspring?), they experience oedipal desires, jealousy, loyalty conflicts, and real maternal/paternal caring as well as worry.
Then there is their role as scientist-slaves to a corporate world. And the question whether – and when – test-tube life stops being artificial and begins being real. Clearly, there’s no such thing as a neutral, objective stance anymore when cloned matter has a human face. Natali, who co-wrote the script, takes the question of what it means to be human away from philosophers and onto the screen. And if there’s laughter in the audience, it’s the hysterical sound of people who are getting scared of a future that’s almost here.
SPLICE | Directed by Vincenzo Natali (Canada et al. 2009) with Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley. Opens in Berlin cinemas on June 3.