31 Days of Halloween, Adrien Brody, androgyny, auteur theory, body image, Brandon McGibbon, Bride of Frankenstein, Canadian films, cinema, co-writers, creature feature, Cube, David Hewlett, Delphine Chaneac, experiments, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, Frankenstein, gender roles, gene splicing, genetic research, Henry Frankenstein, intelligence, KNB Effects, Mary Shelley, Movies, near future, new parents, parent-child relationships, research & development, Sarah Polley, sci-fi, sci-fi-horror, Splice, technological advancement, Vincenzo Natali, writer-director
As this “brave new world” that we’re part of throttles ever forward, we find ourselves in an era when groundbreaking scientific discoveries seem to be a dime a dozen: here a medical breakthrough, there a previously undreamed of planet, everywhere some innovation. Hell, researchers even think they’ve discovered how to prevent humans from aging: forget the Jetson’s flying cars…this is what the future really looks like, apparently. As the question of “Can we do this?” becomes more moot, however, we find ourselves in a quandary that’s at least as old as Mary Shelley’s stitched-together creation: “Should we do this?”
Indeed, as our technological prowess and knowledge expands exponentially (seemingly by the minute), humanity finds itself at a bit of a crossroads, similar to that faced by a parent and child: at some point, the child’s knowledge will surpass the parent’s, regardless of how “smart” they are. As our technological abilities lap our current understanding of the larger implications involving issues like artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, however, the bigger, more terrifying problem becomes evident: at some point, humanity will unleash something on itself that it not only doesn’t fully understand but that it’s powerless to resist. Writer-director Vincenzo Natali’s sci-fi/horror Splice (2009) takes a look at this very issue, wrapping the warning in a tale that’s equal parts “new parent blues” and body horror, sort of like Cronenberg tackling Frankenstein. It’s a bracing and, at times, highly unpleasant film. Like all of Natali’s films, however, it’s also thought-provoking, intelligent and has enough twists and turns to separate it from the pack.
Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are maverick scientists involved in cutting-edge gene-splicing research. Their research involves combining various organisms, culminating in their pride and joys, “Fred” and “Ginger,” organic creations that are like nothing that came before. After their research company decides to halt further genetic splicing in favor of focusing on the breakthroughs they already have, however, Clive and Elsa decide to go rogue and continue their splicing experiments on their own. For “pure” scientists, the thrill is always in the chase, not the chase, and the partners won’t stop when they’re so close to a world-changing discovery.
And, of course, they end up getting their wish, albeit in a way that they probably didn’t expect. Thanks to the inclusion of human DNA in their experiment, Clive and Elsa are now the proud “parents” of…well, something, for lack of a better word. The name their creation “Dren” and there’s immediately conflict: Clive is horrified by what they’ve done and wants to kill the “creature” before anything bad happens. Elsa, on the other hand, wants to study Dren: since the creature ages at an accelerated rate, Elsa figures that they have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe the entire life-cycle of a new species…what scientist worth their salt would pass that up?
As Dren grows, she develops into something decidedly alien, humanoid although possessed of a massive tail with a poisonous stinger at the end, similar to a scorpion. As Dren gets older, the relationship between the “parents” and their “child” becomes more complicated, made more so when Dren begins to display some decidedly violent behavior. If Frankenstein taught us anything it’s that first impressions probably aren’t the best judge. For, you see, as Dren grows, she’s changing: becoming something much greater and more terrifying than the scientists could have ever imagined. After “Fred” and “Ginger” tear each other to rags before a mortified crowd of spectators, Clive and Elsa’s “official” research is shut down. Their secret project has now become something potentially lethal, however, something which threatens not only their lives but the very future of the human species. As Clive and Elsa will learn, there are some doors that should never be opened, even if we have the key.
Like Natali’s solid debut, Cube (1997), Splice is elevated by a great central idea and some truly intelligent writing. Unlike Cube, however, Splice benefits from some excellent acting and much greater production values: the creature is always impressive, from the get-go, and only gets more so as it continues to “evolve” and change. Natali is a tricky filmmaker, almost a poker-faced prankster who delights in hiding things in the margins of his films. One of my favorite revelations in Splice comes from the names of Brody and Polley’s characters: Clive and Elsa. Unless I’m reading too much into it, the connection with Universal’s classic monster flicks seems undeniable: Colin Clive played Henry Frankenstein in James Whale’s classic Frankenstein (1931), while Elsa Lancaster played the monster’s “bride” in the followup, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Subtle, sure, but just the kind of attention to detail that make Natali’s films so interesting.
More importantly, however, Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley invest the film with some genuine heart and soul: unlike the under-developed characters from Cube, Splice is filled with what feel like real people dealing with some intensely difficult decisions. They don’t always make the right decisions, of course, but what Frankenstein story would be complete without a misguided God complex? Polley, in particular, is fantastic as Elsa: she gets some extremely difficult emotional beats to work through and nails everything with a verve that makes it impossible to take your eyes off of her. It’s to Polley’s great credit that she can share the screen with what amounts to a scorpion-tailed gargoyle and still hold her own: contrast this with something like Pacific Rim (2013), where the human actors are completely upstaged by the monsters and robots.
As previously mentioned, Splice is full of some pretty ingenious twists and turns, none of which I’ll spoil here. Suffice to say that the film manages to work in discussions of body image, gender roles and Oedipal/Elektra complexes before the whole thing culminates in a blood-drenched finale that’s the very epitome of “The end is the beginning.” As with almost all of his films, Natali seems more interested in setting up clichéd tropes in order to detonate them from the inside than he is in playing to audience expectations: just when you think you have Splice figured out, Natali flips the film on its head and tells you to take another look. As someone who constantly bemoans lackluster resolutions in indie horror films, I find Natali to be a breath of fresh air: no matter what happens, I know that he’ll find an interesting way to resolve everything without resorting to obvious “Shyamalanisms.”
As with most of Natali’s films, Splice is far from perfect but none of the minor issues or slight imperfections really impact the overall film: taken as a whole, Splice is a massively entertaining, thought-provoking sci-fi/horror film that combines the chilly sterility of Cronenberg with a blood-and-guts monster flick. There are ideas aplenty here and Natali manages to hit most of what he’s aiming at, making Splice one of the most intriguing of the new wave of “intelligent sci-fi” that’s cropped-up in the last five years or so. It’s rare to find a horror film that has both heart and brains, guts and a soul. Like any good mad scientist, Natali has cobbled his film together out of some pretty cool spare parts and let me tell you: it’s a real monster.