Vincenzo Natali’s gene-splicing drama is this year’s MOON – a thoughtful little movie guaranteed to be the best filmed science fiction of the summer.
Serious cinematic science fiction is such a rarity these days that it sometimes seems like an endangered species, replaced by big-budget blockbusters about robots from outer space blowing stuff up; however, every once in a while a film arrives in theatres to remind us that thoughtful, intelligent genre cinema has not gone the way of the dinosaur. Last year, it was Duncan Jones’ MOON; this year, it is Vincenzo Natali’s SPLICE. In fact, I am going to go so far as to bestow virtually the exact same praise I lavished on MOON last year: I won’t say that SPLICE is guaranteed to be the best science fiction film of the summer (there may be other, even more engaging entertainments on the way), but strictly speaking, there can be little doubt that it will be this season’s best filmed science fiction – a motion picture that uses its premise to raise intriguing questions about the moral implications of scientific progress, without resorting to a simplistic formula about mad scientists and monsters run amok.
The story follows a pair of scientistswho splice genetic material from different animals to create hybrids that may provide cures to livestock diseases. Confronted by their corporate master’s decision to give up gene-splicing in favor of producing a patentable medicine, Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) secretly take their experiment to the next level by including humans DNA in the mix. The resulting embryo grows at an unexpectedly accelerated rate, emerging as a strange – but surprisingly cute – little creature with wickedly poisonous tail. Clive wants to destroys the monster, but Elsa overrules him. As the creature matures it takes on more human characteristics, engendering a paternalistic reaction (for both good and bad) in the two scientists. Named Dren (“nerd” spelled backwards, N.E.R.D. being the acronym for Elsa and Clive’s company), the creature continues to move quickly through its life-cycle, rapidly reaching what looks like the equivalence of adolescence, including a dawning sexual interest in Clive.
With scientists named Clive (after Colin Clive who played the titular mad scientist in 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN) and Elsa (after Elsa Lanchester, who played the titular BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1935), Nataliand co-screenwriter Antoinette Terry Bryant are clearly tipping their hat to classic horror films, but the inspiration for SPLICE seems to extend father back, all the way to the literary source novel by Mary Shelly. Although often pegged as science fiction, Shelly’s Frankenstein is almost totally bereft of science; it’s really more a metaphor for the hubris of a careless parent who begets life without considering the consequences. In the same way, SPLICE portrays Elsa and Clive less as mad scientists than as a pair of parents who cannot quite come to terms with their “problem” child.
The problem that Dren represents hangs over the film like a cloud, raising troubling moral questions that cannot easily be answered. Her existence leads to the isolation of the wished-for livestock medicine, but is that enough to justify an experiment that creates a new life form? Is Dren simply an experimental subject, to be terminated when the experiment is complete, or does her quasi-human nature grant her the same right to life that everyone else enjoys? What is the greater obligation for Elsa and Clive – to their scientific progeny or to the human race?
This last question is perhaps the most disturbing, because Dren, in the tradition of Frankenstein’s creation, elicits our sympathy even while we realize that she is potentially dangerous. And not just on a person-to-person level because of her lethal tail: she represents a new and unknown species, one that grows at an alarming rate; unleashed upon the world at large, there is no way of knowing how catastrophic the consequences may be.
Fortunately, these issues provide a solid thematic foundation without weighing down the story, which remains focused on Elsa and Clive’s struggle to negotiate the mess they have created – a mess that is partly scientific but also largely personal. Elsa never wanted to give birth herself, so this is her alternate method of having a child; unfortunately, she is burdened with the residue of an unhappy mother-daughter relationship, which starts to surface in her dealings with Dren. Clive is initially hostile to Dren, but as she matures, and as Else becomes less sympathetic to her “daughter,” Clive swings to Dren’s side.
With scientific objectivity thrown out the window, Elsa and Clive plunge into a personal psycho-drama of their own, fraught with jealousy and a power struggle, culminating in a sequence that is certain to be much remembered: Clive finally succumbs to Dren’s seductive charms. The vague hints of incest and bestiality (she is in a sense his daughter, and she is not fully human) provide an underlying ick factor to a scene that is otherwise filled with a mondo bizarro sense of wonder (sprouting wings, Dren looks almost as angelic as orgasmic), and yet as incredible as the action is, it remains grounded in a believable reality (Elsa catches them in the act – a scene that could occur in any domestic drama).
As a horror-thriller, SPLICE does not fully deliver on the promise of its trailers (which are cut together to suggest a more traditional monster-on-the-loose scenario). Dren is a fascinating character (a wonderful combination of CGI and Delphine Chaneac’s performance), but she is not as threatening as SIL in SPECIES. Natali does not build the tension to unbearable levels. Instead, he focuses on the drama, and the real horror of the piece is moral rather than visceral. The real triumph here is that, if you were to read about a real-life Elsa and Clive in a newspaper article, you would probably want them thrown in jail for life. By telling their story from the inside, Natali confronts you with some serious issues that are not easy to resolve. As we stride into the future, technology will force us to confront these same issues in real life. One of the important roles of the artist is to offer little signposts warning us of the future so that we may be prepared for when it arrives in reality. SPLICE does that better than any film since MOON.
SPLICE (2009). Directed by Vincenzo Natali. Written by Vincenzo Natali and Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Gaylor. Cast: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chaneac, Brandon McGibbon, Simona Maicanescu, David Hewlett, Abigail Chu.