Splice is a modern-day variation on Frankenstein: what happens when science makes an unnatural form of human life. In Mary Shelley's classic novel, the creature is a re-animated bundle of human body parts that, contrary to many popular re-tellings of the myth, has a keen intelligence. Nonetheless, his hideous appearance denies him a place in human society. The story raises questions of science's boundaries and what it means to be truly human.
In Splice's 21st-century scenario, the featured creature arises not from a patchwork of human remains, but instead from a genetically engineered blend of animal and human DNA. This premise, which sets us up to wrestle with some of the same questions, is all the more relevant in light of today's advanced bio-engineering technology and debates about human cloning.
Unfortunately, Splice is more in the tradition of the popular Frankenstein myth than it is Shelley's original, diminishing the human nature of its monster in favor of its brutish nature. This amplifies the surface-level horror, but it glosses over the weightier questions of tampering with human nature. For all its seeming ethical import, Splice shocks us not to make us think, but just for shock's sake.
The creators of this part-human, part-animal being are Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), the Brangelina of bio-engineering. At the film's beginning, they successfully engineer a new hybrid animal species that looks like Flubber and promises a wealth of disease-fighting proteins for the pharmaceutical company they work for, NERD (Nucleic Exchange Research & Development).
Flushed with success, Clive and Elsa go to their corporate boss and pitch their most ambitious plan yet: throw human DNA into the mix. As they see it, the right human-animal hybrid could yield the real medical goods—cures for cancer, even. But their boss isn't interested. She wants them instead to find ways to capitalize financially on what they've created so far.
Clive and Elsa pretend to go along with their orders, but behind the scenes they go to work on their dream creation. At first they tell each other that they just want to see if they can successfully do it, if they can Splice the DNA together—they won't even go on and fertilize the egg. But when they succeed, Elsa (for reasons not fully apparent until later) presses Clive to take it one step further, and again and again until they have a mysterious, illegal, and rapidly maturing new creature under their care, which they dub "Dren" ("NERD" backward).
"Clive and Elsa are smarter than they are wise," says Splice director and co-writer Vincenzo Natali, "and while they play with the building blocks of life, they don't really have any deep understanding of what life is."
This is a generous assessment of their characters. After all, you might expect that, on the verge of doing something so wildly controversial, the brilliant Clive and Elsa would first have some semblance of a nuanced debate. In these early conversations, the film could have actually developed some of the ethical issues at stake. Instead, Clive is rather easily won over by platitudes from Elsa like "scientists push boundaries—at least the important ones do." Which essentially sounds like, "Clive, scientists don't ask hard questions; they push the plot along."