Delphine Chanéac and Sarah Polley, in 'Splice'

Dir. Vincenzo Natali
(2010, R, 104 min)
★ ★ ★

Seeing Sarah Polley in ads for a monster movie is a bit unusual. The young actress, who received a 2008 Academy Award nomination for writing the screenplay for Away from Her, which she also directed, is not one you often find accepting just-a-paycheck roles. Her participation, as well as the participation of her co-star, Oscar-winner Adrien Brody, indicates that Splice will be more interesting than it looks on paper or in the ads. It is.

What starts as a conventional gross-out cautionary tale about playing God with the gene pool becomes an eerie, generational mother-daughter tale, a fraught domestic drama with the accouterments of a horror film. Polley is cold, brittle, and exacting — to good effect — as genetic scientist Elsa Kast, who along with her professional and romantic partner Clive Nicoli (Brody) splices genes to create new species for a company interested in medical advancements for livestock, but the scientists (she more than he) want to introduce human DNA to the cocktail, a dangerous and unethical procedure that nevertheless could revolutionize the treatment of a number of diseases.

The creature they engineer is at first frightening but over the course of its accelerated life cycle more and more closely resembles a human being. Elsa names her Dren, who as an adult is played by French model/actress Delphine Chanéac as emotionally vulnerable, instinctive, and unpredictable. The most interesting part of the film is the relationship between Elsa and Dren, and how it’s influenced by suggested abuse from Elsa’s mother, whom she describes as “crazy” in the off-hand manner people often use to discuss their relatives, but when we see Elsa’s old family home — specifically her bedroom — we start to readjust our understanding of crazy. Is her experiment a repairing of her frightful maternal memories or a reliving of them? Is this a monster movie about Dren, or about Elsa? This subtle layer of character study enhances the sci-fi.

There comes a late development so creepily absurd that it threatens to derail the film into self-parody, and there are supporting characters who could use some fleshing out — Brandon McGibbon as Clive’s brother Gavin and David Hewlett as a micromanaging middleman who oversees the couple’s experiments — but this is at its heart a three-person show about a young couple playing house in the grotesque way only a pair of horror-movie scientists could. Co-written and directed by Vincenzo Natali, it presents its disturbing experiment in parenthood alongside its splicing of genes. It’s about nature versus nurture — in the ways you expect, and in ways you won’t.