Creature Presentation: Polley inspects her odd creation.
Creature Presentation: Polley inspects her odd creation.

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The thing wears a dress.

In director and co-writer Vincenzo Natali’s Splice, two scientists experiment with animal cloning. Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are first shown birthing, via mechanical mom, a boyfriend for their lady chimera. “He’s perfect,” Clive says. “So cute!” Elsa coos. The newborn looks like a giant, wrinkled slug, so you know straight away that they’re a tad nuts.

But just when they complete what they believe is the final fine-tuning before launching their dream project, Clive and Elsa’s lab is shut down. They’re so close to achieving their goal, though, that Elsa decides to go clandestine, working at night with Clive’s reluctant help. Soon they create what is literally a different beast—now there’s a little human mixed into the animal cocktail. Clive agrees only to bring it to term; Elsa has other plans.

After busting out of its womb early and thrashing around the lab like a manic, bleating sperm, the creature continues to age rapidly but calms down a little when it sees that Elsa wants to play nice. It has a sort of bunny face and hops around on two Satan legs like a crippled goat. It has a tail and takes tiny huffs and puffs when it’s tired. It’s kind of silly at first glance, then increasingly disturbing. And when “she” reaches the human equivalent of a toddler’s age and is shown with a teddy bear in her Sunday best, it’s really fucking freaky.

Elsa names her Dren, the reversed acronym of the Nucleic Exchange Research and Development lab (yes, “nerd”). And then Natali’s David Cronenberg-evoking fantasy morphs from a thriller about messing with the natural order of things to a psychological musing on nature versus nurture. Clive and Elsa are a couple outside of work as well; he wants kids, while she refers to a potential kid as “a third party” and occasionally alludes to a difficult childhood relationship with her mother. But when Elsa starts doing things such as cradling Dren, giving her “time out”s, and telling her how pretty she is when she grows into an even weirder-looking Sinead O’Connor (Delphine Chanéac plus some CG), it becomes clear that Elsa aches to be a mom without really being a mom.

Don’t worry: Splice doesn’t go sappy. And writer-director Natali, best known for 1997’s limited-release cult favorite Cube, maintains a sense of foreboding with dark cinematography, quiet tension, and odd, steep-angled camerawork. But the film does, in its weakest moments, become laughable. (Let’s just say that three is not company, and Brody is brave in a thankless scene.) There’s no question that you’ll initially find certain final-reel developments ludicrous and out of place. In hindsight, though, the arc mostly makes sense­—a rarity in almost any thriller that eventually goes bananas. Dren isn’t the only monster here, nor are Elsa and Clive the sole portraits of humanity. All three, though, are hard to forget once the lights go up.