With his first two features, the Canadian writer-director Vincenzo Natali set out his stall as a purveyor of ideas-driven, low-budget genre fare. 1998's Cube was a taut, clever slice of existentialist sci-fi, forcing its characters to ask "what are we doing here?" on several levels; 2003's Cypher a coolly intricate corporate intrigue that hinged on the fluid, shifting identities of its leads. With his latest, Splice, Natali attempts to put the science back at the heart of science fiction, simultaneously overseeing both a battle of the species and a battle of the sexes.
Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody play Elsa and Clive, the Posh and Becks or (more appropriately, given the coming destruction) Kurt and Courtney of gene research: rock 'n' roll scientists and lovers who've successfully managed to splice together odds and sods of animal DNA to produce a new lifeform, rich in proteins, for use in agricultural feeding applications; in the process, they've landed themselves on the cover of Wired magazine. With typical movie-scientist hubris, their next project is to try fusing human and animal genes, with the intention of curing cancer, and boosting their profiles even further. Yet when their funding goes south, the pair decide to go rogue - as does their eventual creation, an amphibious nymph named Dren, who arrives blessed with rapid growth, exceptional intelligence, and a nasty mean streak.
I wrote with regard to last week's Inception that sometimes an unlimited budget can actually get in the way of a film's big ideas, rather than aid bringing them to fruition. Splice makes for a workable test study: for much of the running time here, we're simply watching two actors in a lab or a disused barn - despite limited means, Natali's films are always carefully designed - interacting with a part-human, part-CG creation (a splice of the film's own), the relative lack of spectacle all the better to spot what's really going on here. That Natali is attempting to channel the spirit of the great Universal/RKO horror movies is one idea we pick up all too quickly: let's face it, you can't name your leads Elsa and Clive without outing yourself as a major James Whale buff.
Still, it's apt that Elsa and Dren (Delphine Chanéac) should first begin to clash over possession of a cat the latter has picked up in the fields surrounding the scientists' rural retreat: it's a horror film that, like the Cat People movies, turns entirely on the proper use and possession of a pussy. The gene-splicing project is Elsa and Clive's baby, in every sense: we see Elsa hand-rearing the creature, and racing to turn the basement of their lab into a makeshift nursery. What's noteworthy is how the screenplay (by Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor) seeks to reverse traditional movie gender roles. Here, it's the man who's desperate to fill the womb-shaped void in the couple's personal life; Brody's big-softy demeanour is more obviously at home here than it was in Predators, a film that sought to splice the actor's DNA with that of Vin Diesel.
Conversely, it's Elsa's ambition - signalled by her desire to upgrade to a swankier loftspace, and her flat refusal to conceive by conventional methods - that drives the pair forward; it's her way of pushing the boundaries without ruining her figure. On some level, the film expresses a fear of female sexuality: the creature does, after all, develop into a she (and a daddy's-girl at that, which gives us the year's freakiest sex scene), and one of the unexpected consequences of this scientific triumph is a frenzied rebooting of Elsa's sex drive. It's a tricky role for the thoughtful, independently minded Polley to have taken on, and testament to her skill as a performer that - after a somewhat shaky start - she begins to make clear the fine line both she and the film are treading.
On one side, then, Splice could be considered no more than Species with a college degree, or at least its own Facebook page: Natali's disdain for trashy thrills discernible from the manner in which the two supporting characters most likely to be picked off by the rampaging Dren are only dispatched late on, off-screen, and within a minute of one another. (Again, it's possible there might have been budgetary constraints at play here.) Yet there's equally something compelling in the scenario's hybridisation of gynocentric horror and practical parenting manual: to give Natali his due, he is writing about about some of the issues that follow from growing older as a human, whether you happen to be wearing a lab coat or not.
Splice opens nationwide from tomorrow.