Okay, set out as baldly as that, it doesn't seem any different from a couple of dozen things-we-weren't-meant-to-know horror stories. But the basic scaffolding of the plot exfoliates in all kinds of interesting, unexpected, and genuinely unsettling ways, and its ideas are nicely undercut by a knowing humour: this is a serious film that doesn't take itself too seriously. Both Elsa and Clive both have complicated reactions to their creation, oscillating between hubris, fear, and fatal attraction, exposing emotional weakenesses in themselves and their relationship; Elsa in particular has problems coming to terms with her creation, thanks to a childhood crippled by an uncaring mother. Her developing attachment to Dren is creepily ambiguous, and there's some good satire on the problems of parenthood as Dren races through all the stages of childhood and adolescence to a seriously problematic maturity.
The science behind Dren's creation contains a fair measure of handwavium, but Elsa and Clive are portrayed as scientists driven by ambition and inquisitiveness rather than haphazard craziness, and their lab has a cluttered authenticity. It's nice to see researchers using mini-centrifuges, Eppendorf pipettes, and gel electrophoresis rather than simply peering down microscopes: someone has obviously done a bit of homework. I liked the alarmingly temperamental plumbing of the artificial womb, too. Best of all is the design of Dren. Played at maturity by Delphine Chaneac with an eerie physicality that complements Greg Nicotero's and Howard Bergera's seamless mix of makeup, prostheses and digital manipulation, she's a genuinely weird and beautiful chimera, and some of the best scenes in the film explore her volatile mix of fear, vulnerability, frustration and outbursts of wild exuberance.
So, while the story may be familiar, Natali's angle of attack is refreshingly different, his low-key direction mostly eschews sensationalism yet delivers some nice shocks, and the intelligent script is complemented by some fine acting. And although the last act devolves towards creature-feature frights and alarms, it's just about redeemed by a final scene that has a chillingly spare ambiguity. Like Dren, it's a hybrid whose beauty is more than the sum of its parts.