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Bonni McCoy, C&EN Contributing Editor

poster You know the kind of people who are so sarcastic that you're never sure when to take them seriously? "Splice," director Vincenzo Natali's latest sci-fi horror show, is the film version of that person, a cinematic experience thick with viewers' uncomfortable laughter and nerve-frying confusion.

Adrien Brody ("The Pianist") and Sarah Polley ("Dawn of the Dead") are Clive and Elsa, two brilliant, young genetic engineers, lovebirds both in and out of the lab. When we first meet them, they're clad in leather and sunglasses, swaggering superstars of modern science flaunting cover stories of themselves in Wired. Seems that while working at a private research lab (Nucleic Exchange Research & Development, or NERD), the duo spliced DNA from several animals to produce a new, sluglike life form named Ginger and her male counterpart, Fred. This excited NERD's parent company, whose mission is to synthesize new beings in order to extract proteins and patent cures for diseases.

Flush from their triumph, the ambitious twosome long to toy with human DNA, but are thwarted by conservative corporate lackeys, who—wouldn't you know—get riled up about pesky legal statutes barring such behavior. No matter. The intrepid scientists moonlight surreptitiously in a basement lab, ultimately producing Dren (mesmerizing newcomer Chanéac), an animal-human hybrid that grows surprisingly intelligent, aggressive, unpredictable, and sexually mature. What's more, Dren forms emotional attachments with her creators, incompetent quasi-parents needing far more than Dr. Spock to set things straight.

Brody and Polley do their best with the clunky dialogue and mounting absurdity, but even these actors' formidable talents can't make Clive and Elsa's impetuous, vapid danger junkies credible as scientists. Indeed, if Natali wants his audience mired in moral ambiguity and engaged in spirited postviewing debate, his protagonists ought to at least consider the ethical implications of their actions.

Armed with snazzy special effects and amped up creepiness, "Splice" should rate high by pure escapist schlock criteria. Unfortunately, though, its obvious foreshadowing and genre clichés undermine the fun factor by half and create a pervasive restlessness alleviated only somewhat by third-act surprises. Likely, it's this alone that will bar "Splice" from the exclusive So-Bad-It's-Good Club, an inglorious distinction but one "Splice" comes close to earning for being both completely straight-faced and wholly disinterested in issues of responsibility, decency, and humanity. In its goofiest moments, "Splice" gets what it deserves, a crowd that laughs at, not with, its heartless tale.

Director Natali's interest in creating a film about genetic engineering goes back to 1995 and the Vacanti Mouse experiment, in which scientists successfully grafted a piece of synthetic material treated with bovine cartilage cells onto the back of a mouse. Because the screenplay for "Splice" was 15 years in the making, Natali's script evolved to keep pace with scientific developments. "When I first wrote this," he says in the film's production notes, "people weren't talking about cloning. In 1997, the world heard about Dolly, the cloned sheep, and then, in 2001, the human genome was mapped."

In a case of movie-release serendipity, geneticist J. Craig Venter shined a spotlight on the insular world of genetic research when he successfully synthesized an entire bacterial genome and used it to take over a cell. He described the process to the journal Science: "It's pretty stunning when you just replace the DNA software in a cell and the cell instantly starts reading that new software. It starts making a whole new set of proteins, and after a short while all the characteristics of the first species disappear and a new species emerges from the software that controls that cell going forward." Venter calls his achievement "the first self-replicating species we've had on the planet whose parent is a computer."

As to the question of how far the science has actually come, geneticist and technical consultant to the film George S. Charames tells Reel Science: "I've seen cases where different hematopoetic cells were taken from patients and injected into pregnant pigs. Cells removed from these pigs contained both human and hybrid cells. If you extrapolate from that the potential for examining chromosomal changes, for example, it's really quite significant." Charames posits, "If science were able to solve issues such as interspecies immunity and the ethical barriers associated with the procedures, we are not far away from 'Splice.' " Here's hoping that compelling bioethical questions will continue to be raised cinematically, in productions far more thoughtfully conceived.