Sci-Fi movie review: Splice

[Splice. Directed by Vincenzo Natali. Released June, 2010. DVD/Blu-Ray released. As usual, the review contains many spoilers.]

It looks like science fiction, but by the end it’s obvious Splice is a gothic horror movie. As science fiction it does have a modern biochemistry lab for a set, at least in the beginning; and the story is about gene splicing and synthetic biology – hot contemporary topics. But the movie’s spirit is deeply Gothic: It’s about man violating nature, psychologically twisted behavior, and foreboding darkness of evil deeds. It culminates in a snowy-misty night, in a swamp, with a stake through the heart of the beast. Really, it does. It is a Frankenstein story, with a touch of Kronenberg and other horror movie allusions, all rolled into one bilious film.

Splice is about two genetic scientists, Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrian Brody). They’re an off-beat couple. They have synthesized life forms that produce commercially useful protein for a big money-grubbing pharmaceutical corporation. Unfortunately, the corporation won’t authorize them to do the next experiment, splicing human genes into the life forms. So, of course, they do it anyway. A short and awkward visual montage later, they have a humanoid thing on their hands. They name it Dren (nerd spelled backwards), played in adult scenes with physically superlative expression by Delphine Chanéac.

We know this is going to end badly. The foreshadowing is so thick, it’s a veritable pall. The question is not if, but when will this thing kill somebody. Cue the moral issues: Humans can’t play God. Correction, humans can play at God, but at some point the playing ends and the disaster begins. Like Jurassic Park and similar movies, we know the disaster is going to happen, we follow the story to see how it comes about.

The core of the movie and its most original element is the tortured relationship between Clive, Elsa and Dren. This is one of the more unusual ménages-a-trois outside of porndom. (The sex reference is relevant, as Splice flirts with soft porn.) This is the strength of the film in terms of creativity. There is commitment to a character-based story and intellectual interest, such as it is, in the debates among the characters. Unfortunately, it’s in the character issues that the movie probably loses most people.

The human characters are stand-ins for parents, and many of the scenes deliberately depict normal parenting problems, such as the kid not wanting to eat its food. But they’re not bringing up baby. The creature Dren goes through a harrowing sequence of transformations: It’s a slug, an amphibian, a girl, a bird-thing, a blood beast, a slinky-tailed woman, and finally a horny monster-guy. Say what you like about Dren the Splice monster, it’s undeniably versatile. However, all these changes keep the parents, uh scientists, spinning – or more accurately, emotionally flip-flopping. Both Elsa and Clive go through cycles of love, hate, love, fear. Are scientists bright enough to do the genetics really so clueless about the results? They talk about it, but emotionally they flip-flop. So do we; it’s hard to keep up with it.

Well to stimulate attention, there’s always unnatural copulation (Dren as female with Clive) and rape (Dren as male with Elsa). It’s easy to be put off and still interested. However, it’s all a bit much and I’ve heard that some audiences laugh at the wrong places. I could see what the director Vincenzo Natali and screenwriters were about; I’m sure they’d call it bold storytelling. They were pushing the emotional and psychological envelope, but for a lot of the audience (including me) it turns the movie into a blood soaked melodrama.

I suppose nothing succeeds like excess. Personally, I got tired of the manipulation. For example, in the seduction leading to the unnatural copulation, Dren is costumed in a slinky black dress that exposes ample amounts of cleavage. I get it, femme fatale, except she’s in a dirty old barn, out in the back country, in winter, in a low cut evening dress. Right. So that manipulation bothered me; almost everybody will have their own points of incredulity. It adds up into a lot of head-shaking; and that’s before the last third, which turns into a gothic slasher-movie.

Most people will appreciate that Splice is well produced. The special effects are generally good. The director has an eye for visuals. The lead actors do well enough with the parts they are given. Unfortunately, this is faint praise for an interesting movie with aspirations to involve an audience at many levels, but gets stuck in high gear as it heads down the path of bloody horror.

SCIENCE SPOILERS

Splice arrived in theaters just a few weeks after Craig Venter announced the world’s first synthetic cell. The media was full of “life in a test tube.” This was untrue, but raised the usual questions about the ethics of ‘man creating life.’ I thought that Splice was certainly hitting the jackpot, as it purportedly dealt with the perils of modern genetics. As it turned out, Splice didn’t hit the jackpot (either in gross income or acclaim), and some of the blame for that could go to the handling of the science.

At points the movie seems more about other monster movies, Frankenstein in particular, than it is about creating a monster through real genetics. The movie’s level of genetic science accuracy is roughly on a par with Star Trek’s handling of matter/antimatter. Many of the right words are there, most of them pulled from a lexicon so they sound authentic, but used pro-forma. Biochemists and geneticists will find the dialog amusing.

The movie generates fewer questions about how synthetic life is created than does the original Frankenstein movie (vintage 1931). Essentially the story takes it for granted scientists can create genetically altered life and the process is not particularly important. That’s how it manages to be scientifically uninteresting when the main thesis of the story is the failure of science. The scriptwriter and director aren’t interested in the science, only in showing the effects (and the more ick-factor the better). Consequently, the science in Spice is largely throwaway. Okay. This is a gothic horror movie, not a doctoral thesis.

Too bad, Splice could have had much more authenticity if it acknowledged that geneticists and biochemists are aware of how much they don’t know. They take calculated risks and watch their procedures and outcomes very carefully. Unfortunately, the two key scientists in the movie, Elsa and Clive, are not only psychologically and morally damaged people, they are amazingly bad scientists. For example, they don’t notice that when Dren goes through a major transformation, it ‘dies’ temporarily. This happens three times. The first time the death is monitored in the lab, but when it happens later they don’t even check for a pulse. As “scientists” their powers of observation are stunningly deficient.

It can be argued from the Gothic point of view that details like this are unnecessary. The failure of science is inevitable. It’s the gothic fatalism at work. Why bother showing that good scientists can get bad results. Well, it might have helped temper some of the unreality, but in the final analysis Splice isn’t concerned about unreality, and it has no use for science. It’s actually anti-science, not intelligently as a cautionary tale, but because it’s more interested in dramatizing the gruesome effects rather than showing how they came about.

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