Splice

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

16 June

 

Lord Byron and house guests read Fantasmagoriana, 1816

While on holiday in Switzerland in 1816, Lord Byron and his house guests grew sick of the weather of the “year without a summer”, as 1816 came to be known. Volcanic activity on the other side of the world and the historically low solar activity were precipitating famine in Europe, flooding in Asia and other weather catastrophes. But for this party it meant excessive rain, gloom and little to do. To entertain each other, they started reading a collection of German and French gothic stories called Fantasmagoriana. Published only three years earlier in French, the book contained stories with titles such as La Morte Fiancée (The Death Bride) and Le Revenant (The Revenant). The readers included Byron, Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, John William Polidori and Claire Clairmont. “We will each write a ghost story,” Mary Godwin remembers Byron commanding. And they did, Polidori writing The Vampyre, the first work of recognisable vampire fiction, while Godwin (with addenda by her future husband Shelley), inspired by the news of the great electric advance of galvanism, came up with Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus, after having “a waking dream” during which she imagined it, on 16 June.

 

 

 

Splice (2009, dir: Vincenzo Natali)

Why does RoboCop clump about like that, when he’s a cyborg who can jump great heights, has finesse when it comes to aiming a weapon and can run like a gazelle? The answer is: to remind us that he is a Frankenstein creation. Thud. No such sonic clues come from Vincenzo Natali, who spends a huge amount of time and effort distracting us from the fact that his story is about another Frankenstein creation – a hybrid human built by a nerd and his nerdy girlfriend. See, a couple, couldn’t be a Frankenstein story, could it? Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play the scientist couple and, from the first shots of a slightly overweight Polley, it’s obvious that Natali has pulled his crew in on a no-budget, last-minute, just-got-the-money-and-the-window arrangement. The weight comes and goes as the film progresses, doubtless because Natali was shooting asequentially. This is not an unfair pop at Polley, not at all. In fact it’s a hallmark of low-budget high-concept films that some or all of the actors look chubby – they’re in “downtime” and are often there to lend a name and do a friend a favour – before they go back on the punishing diets that make them lean lollipop heads. In this case Polley for a fellow Canadian, the director of the cult film Cube perhaps also having another little wonder up his sleeve. He does, with this story of scientists who splice DNA together to produce a hybrid human, incubate it, birth it, then stand back and watch as it – her, actually – develops at a freakish speed. Dren (that’s “nerd” backwards) then throws the “parents” into familiar roles – she is loving and protective, he more wary (surely he’s not asking “Is it mine?”) and in a quick succession of cute vignettes, Natali delivers the sort of “bringing up baby” film that families used to shoot on domestic Super 8, but here is caught on the brightest, most aseptic film stock.
Except this isn’t a “big aah” home movie; it’s a horror film, and what the couple have actually created is something that becomes more terrifying by the day. Dren grows at speed, letting on that she can breathe underwater at one point (there are other revelations, in spoiler territory) and subtly shifting her allegiances – as the scientists’ “little girl” arrives at puberty she falls for dad, starts to see mother as a rival (hello Doctor Freud). To reveal how it all pans out would destroy the fun of watching it, but as Splice moves towards its finale, it never quite ties up all the ideas it has let loose en route. Maybe that’s because the ethics of scientific experimentation on animal or human forms resists easy good/bad categorisation. Fixing a wonky heart is good; growing a second head isn’t. But if you can ignore that, and its generic running-around ending, this is a fabulous looking film, the two leads live up to their billing, as does Delphine Chaneac (yes, it’s a human being playing Dren, amazingly) and there has been a fascinating examination of what it means to be a human. It’s all about love, apparently. Well, it might be.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • There’s never a dull film from Vincenzo Natali, director of Cube
  • Tetsuo Nagata’s bright clean cinematography
  • Delphine Chaneac’s amazingly lithe performance
  • The remarkable effects work – CG and physical

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Splice – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Splice”

  1. "Splice" is a step in the right direction for horror.

    Every so often, I find myself pleasantly surprised by intentionally misadvertised entertainment, and writer/director Vincenzo Natali's genetic genre mash-up is the latest such example. From a marketing standpoint, its scare-tactics are clearly the easy sell, despite their comprising only a tiny percentage of its thematic intent. 'Hard sci-fi parenting metaphor' is, after all, a much tougher pitch.

    So expecting the tasteless creature feature from the trailer, "Splice" impressed me in its pursuit of a more complex emotional response than fear, and is successful in burrowing into your subconscious and picking at your psyche. It's a thinking man's B picture, which plays with the idea of morality on both a scientific and personal level. That it remains intellectually stimulating, even when the surface-area film dips into more traditionally hokey horror territory, is its greatest strength.

    What's so interesting about the story, in spite of what the trailer suggests, is that the creature artificially spawned by genetic engineers Clive and Elsa (Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley) is not an antagonist for the vast majority of the film. "Splice" isn't about a monster— It's about parenthood, and like with "Rosemary's Baby" or "Eraserhead," taking the associated fears and filtering them through a horror lens.

    Besides the tail and the pronounced facial cleft, test-tube baby Dren ('Nerd' backwards, heh) is essentially human, and a big part of "Splice's" inherent creepiness is that she's treated in turn as a subject and a child—Warmly received, but caged and abandoned for significant stretches of time. The realization of this character by French actress Delphine Chanéac, is another of the film's triumphs. Her general lack of dialogue sometimes forces the performance to rely a little too heavily on pantomime, but that we can both feel for and fear Dren simultaneously is a testament to the range of the actress.

    Perhaps it's because "Splice" nails the big performances and the big ideas, and because the gears turning behind the action are so consistently fluid, that it's all the more apparent when it stumbles over little things, like stilted motivation issues, and superfluous, grating secondary characters. Clive's brother (Brandon McGibbon) and boss (David Hewlett), for example, are flat placeholder roles that transparently progress the plot instead of enriching it. The triangular relationship between Clive, Elsa, and Dren, and its weird morphing emotional permutations, is what "Splice" is at its core. It is a film with very few characters, but every moment not spent on that central dynamic feels like time wasted.

    Still, that minor gripe is forgivable because "Splice" has two hugely important and rare qualities for modern horror—Original thought and fearless storytelling. The undercurrent of sexuality in the film, the internal dialogue on gender roles, is apparently one of the reasons no studio wanted to touch the script last year, but Natali's film is a cut above the rest precisely because it isn't afraid to make an audience uncomfortable. And it gets uncomfortable.

    "Splice" gets a lot of credit from me in the abstract. The concrete film doesn't quite live up to the incredible promise of the ideas behind it, but the very presence of those ideas is reaffirming to a degree, and that "Splice" received a wide domestic release is more encouraging still. Granted, it went on to perform below expectations at the box office, but was positioned against more breezy summer fare like "Shrek" and "Get Him to the Greek."

    The other possibility, and this suggests more consumer confidence than an ad man may be inclined to grant, is that "Splice's" scare-tactics aren't the easy sell. Maybe, like me, potential moviegoers just saw a trailer for another crappy horror movie instead of the interesting, offbeat experiment it is.

    It's Warner Brother's loss, and the audience's.

  2. Splice centres on two renowned young scientists (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) that are quasi-famous for successfully creating a new species of animal, a species with enormous pharmaceutical industry potential in the form of an ability to secrete profitable proteins. Despite a refusal by their company bosses to approve the next stage of the project, or anything that tampers with human DNA, their ambitions lead them to create a human-animal hybrid by combining human genes with those of the created species. This in turn leads to the creation of a new entity they name Dren, which they raise and attempt to study as a personal project concealed from their employers and colleagues.

    The story becomes highly engrossing as we follow the creature's development alongside that of the two scientists, who are in a relationship that becomes increasingly strained by a series of ethical and logistical dilemmas. The two central performances are well-judged, but the real star is Dren; or the CGI responsible for her creation, which is always convincing and solid at all stages of the creature's evolution. Vincenzo Natali's visually intense direction is also worth mentioning, and he clearly enjoys playing with a generous budget as compared with his previous features like Cube.

    This is, however, no modern masterpiece – the plot becomes predictable and contrived in the final third, the minor characters are little more than stereotypes (lax young brother, venal bosses) and the comedic elements of the film don't always sit comfortably with the horror aspects (there is, however, a notable exception in a hilarious scene towards the end). But these drawbacks are outweighed by the plus points, which makes Splice an enjoyable experience overall.

  3. So Many things went wrong with this movie. One, a high-tech lab where there are NO cameras in the "secure" areas. I mean seriously are we supposed to believe that there were no cameras in the room with the multi-million dollar piece of equipment (fake uterus) was. Also, about that they break a multi-million dollar piece of equipment (smash it) and no one even asks what happened to it. They end up moving Dren into the basement (where no one goes), because yea maintenance and janitorial employees ever go into areas where maintenance and janitorial things are stored. OK, but those are minor things. How about we look at how Adrian Brody/Sarah Polley characters changed so quickly without explanation. Adrian Brody starts out thinking they need to kill Dren, then he thinks no we need to take care of it, and then near the end he says "the experiment's over we no longer have an obligation to the specimen" none of those transitions are ever explained they just happen. Sarah Polley's character does the same thing only in reverse. She starts off wanting to take care of Dren, then after Dren kills the cat she goes all kinds of crazy and wants to kill Dren and then she goes back to wanting to take care of Dren and then at the very end she wants to kill it again. Now, I guess we can say that she turns on Dren because of the abuse her mother did to her, although we are never told that not even a damn flash-back scene. Also, why did Adrian Brody have sex with Dren, it was not needed and in the scene right before that we see that she has no vagina (so we will call it Comic Book Magic. Next, they are supposed to be brilliant scientist, but they fail to notice that every single time there is a change in Dren she "Dies" for a bit. In the fake uterus machine she dies and then comes out, she gets drowned and dies and then develops the aqua-lungs. So they really don't see that come on. Finally, there is NO moral, I mean I guess the moral is go ahead and screw around with nature and when it kills everything that you love and rapes you, don't worry go ahead and screw around with nature some by selling your rape creature. I mean the sex scene was totally un-needed but the rape scene was just sick, and then on top of that to find out that she is just money hungry woman at the end. When she said "What's the worst thing that can happen", I totally wanted the camera to pan outside and see the whole city on fire. This movie was horrible, it was horribly written and horribly put together. I am sadden that people actually found this movie to be good.

  4. Splice was a movie that had a lot of promise. It seemed to be building towards something special, but got lost in an unnecessary plot thread that didn't quite work towards the end. THis specific plot started with a scene involving the creature and the character played by Adrian Brody, and it was a scene that didn't quite work because there wasn't enough of a build up towards something like that happening. Sure there were some scenes leading towards that, but in my opinion those scenes were not enough to take such a major step forward, not after he first showed disgust towards the creature at the earlier phases of its development. On top of that the movie goes even farther into absurdity at the conclusion, involving the character played by Sarah Polley and the creature again, taking much of the intelligence of the film out of the equation.

    In my opinion, the director was onto something in the beginning but then took the story into an unnecessary direction that might've still worked if there had been some real build up to those points which led to the conclusion. Sure there were some signs, but really not enough. Instead the movie ends in what can only be called a total WTF moment, and it doesn't work at all. Not a horrible movie, but only average and not recommended.

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