The premise (and it’s a doozy): Two romantically involved scientists (Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley) create a pair of blobby, pulsating mutations that resemble living penises and are named “Fred” and “Ginger.” In creating these nauseating entities, we may have come closer, the movie tells us, to finding a cure for diabetes and cancer. The next step the scientists take is to combine human and experimental (aka, monstrous) DNA and create a new creature that initially resembles an uncooked bratwurst, then grows rapidly and appears more and more human, except for the tail, gills and that high-pitched squealing sound that only monkeys and peacocks make.
Instead of destroying this abomination, the scientists adopt it as their pseudo-child, monitoring its progress while growing emotionally attached to it despite all the warning signs that “Dren,” as they name it, will eventually turn on them and try to eat them, or worse. The anticipation of what comes next is the best thing this sci-fi horror parable has to offer. During the laboratory-set scenes, we share a sense of discovery mixed with dread and curiosity. The film’s early and best scenes suggest a hybrid of a Guillermo Del Toro and David Cronenberg film. Initially, this isn’t even a horror film but a modern day Frankenstein crossed with Dolly the Sheep.
The special effects are vivid and the performances resonate, especially Delphine Chaneac’s startling turn as Dren. It’s fun to see Oscar-winner Brody, a fine actor but not a traditional leading man, find his niche in sci-fi. Polley is simply terrific.
The film offers a novel take on the unconventional family. The scenes of Dren being “raised” tease the conventions of parenthood and are flush with surprises. It’s energetically directed by Vincenzo Natali, who doesn’t overuse gore but isn’t afraid to give genre fans something creatively grotesque to gawk at.
Yet things start to unravel in the third act, which goes in directions both bold and silly and leads to a standard monster-in-the-woods showdown and a wrap-up so unoriginal and unsatisfying, it seems like the screenwriters ran out of ideas and just settled for Species IV. There’s also a last-minute hint of a sequel but audiences likely won’t embrace this as a potential franchise (then again, they made a sequel to Big Momma’s House and Garfield, so anything is possible).
This film will stand out in a summer of sequels, remakes, TV spinoffs and ‘splosion fests, which is one of the best things about it. But even though it has a lot going for it, the film ultimately left me cold. It compromises its playful, ambitious start and mutates, literally, into an unlovable monster.