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June 4, 2010


2009, Dir. by Vincenzo Natali.

Though it's veiled by shiny colors and hip modern characters, Vincenzo Natali's festival-hit-turned-summer-sleeper Splice is at its core a tale we've heard before. Most will make a connection to Frankenstein mythology through the plot, and the fact that our primary characters are named Clive and Elsa will ring a bell for fans of a couple of films made by James Whale in the early 1930's. As a big fan of Mary Shelley's original novel and the films that built on its legacy, it was hard for me to not respect what Splice brought to the table. While the film isn't necessarily original, it is definitely a unique take on the classic tale.

Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley star in this minimalist tale (there are only seven credited cast members and most of the film is contained to three memorable sets) as a couple of geneticists who are science's biggest rock stars. They've created a new species by splicing together the DNA of several animal species and are loving the free range they've been given over their lab, but the pharmaceutical company that pays the bills is ready to move on to phase two (because we all know what phase three is: profit).

Unwilling to walk away from their work quietly, Clive and Elsa - mostly Elsa - decide to move on with their own experiments, and graduate to using human DNA. After a learning curve is overcome, we meet the resulting creature that Elsa names Dren. Dren is something viewers have never seen before, a creature that exists somewhere between Species' Natasha Henstridge and a non-assimilated portion of John Carpenter's The Thing; a small feminine being with a protruding forehead, knees that bend in an inhuman direction, and a probing tail that doubles as a stinger. She's also a child who grows and learns quickly, seeming to develop new talents by the day. While Clive is disturbed by the offspring's ability to build intelligence, Elsa takes on the role of protector and mother, allowing Dren to develop. Like most things created by nerds with intelligence, Dren becomes an obsession to those who study her.

Like Frankenstein, Splice relays the importance of looking at the morality of creation when humans tamper with the gifts of life. Clive is very grounded and offers up plenty of doubts regarding how "right" their work is, but Elsa seems to be driven by a greater calling. There's a moment early in the film where Dren, still incubating inside her mechanical mother, flatlines and is nearly lost in Elsa's eyes. When the machinery relays vital signs after moments of fear, she briefly glances up to the heavens, as if she's mentally thanking God for saving her creation. In her eyes this creation is a gift that is her responsibility, and from that moment forward motherhood becomes a recurring theme between our female characters.

As she evolves mentally and physically, Dren becomes more volatile. Natali's work to show her instability reminded me of a famous passage from Mary Shelley's novel, in which that creation exclaims that it has the capacity for love or rage, and that if it "cannot satisfy the one, [it] will indulge the other." These indulgences lead to a role reversal for Clive and Elsa, which works both as a statement on the difficulties of parenthood and to signify that their creation can not be fully explained by science.

Dren's loving side does lead to an unfortunate scene of intimacy which will probably gain infamy among many viewers, but her transformations throughout the film were the most interesting part of Splice's story to this viewer. Dren, portrayed by French model/actress Delphine Chaneac and a lot of special effects, is given just as much screen time as either Hollywood star, and the character's expressions and actions seem to control emotions in the viewer. Like Karloff's monster, this creation can look innocent and childlike at one moment, yet can inspire unease and dread the next.

Splice isn't going to set the world on fire, and I think a lot of the film's intricacies might be lost on most audiences. However, I do think the film will have staying power with horror and sci-fi fans who appreciate the theories behind their terror. At present, I think Splice will serve as great counter-programming to the mindless films of summer, and that any open-minded viewer who is up for a tale that pits morality vs. science could enjoy checking out Splice and piecing together their own conclusions.


Andrei said...

I didn't expect "Slice" to be the next big hit in horror, but I do expect it to deliver something different and interesting, and by the looks of it, it really did. Can't wait to see it! Great review.

kindertrauma said...

Sensational review and thanks for including that great Frankenstein quote! -Unk

The Mike said...

Thanks for the comments!

@Atroxion - I didn't expect it to be huge, but I was hoping for a run similar to 1408 a couple of years ago (about 70-80 million, if I recall). I don't think this one has the staying power because it's more of a niche product. However, that's most likely a good thing.

@Unk - Thanks! I very much enjoyed your take on the film too...I fear I'm starting to agree with your take on Ms. Polley.

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: said...

Nice to see SPLICE get some love! I think it's one of the more underrated films of the last decade. Then again, I have a huge crush on Sarah Polley. I'd watch 2 hours of her reading a phone book.

:) :) :)