The imaginative Canadian director of “Cube”, Vincenzo Natali, returns with the deliciously bizarre creature feature “Splice”.
On the surface, this is a provocative 21st century return to the horror genre’s traditionally favourite topic: the dangers of modern science (in this case the biotechnology industry and the new genetics) and the mistake of ‘tampering with nature’. On a deeper level, it’s a skewed fairy tale that taps into some of the oldest myths in history and examines the massive burden of responsibility it would place on humanity’s shoulders -- and the heavy transformative consequences for the human psyche -- if we ever gained that power to make all our most florid creative imaginings a reality.
It has to be said, the genetics behind it all seems a little unlikely. As is becoming usual in modern culture, DNA seems here to be viewed almost as a magical elixir, with endlessly variable alchemical powers of creativity. The fact that genes are discreet and isolatable and can thus be transferred between evolutionarily widely separated organisms appears to have led to the belief that you can perform the technological equivalent of throwing them into a hat, shaking it about a bit and pulling out a fully viable, completely brand new, never seen before on the face of the planet, species. If producing a genetic chimera were as easy as it appears here, think of the amount of half-men-half-sheep, or half-men-half-horses there would already be trotting about the place. (On second thoughts, don’t think about that!) The most likely animal/human hybrid remains the chimp-human variety, but apparently those crazed, hubristic, power-mad geneticists haven’t even got around to that one yet -- which I can’t help thinking is extremely negligent of them. (I want a monkey man, and I want him now!)
Nevertheless, the film “Splice” posits a brave new world in which two young scientific geniuses -- a thrusting young couple called Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley): part biological pioneers, part adult computer whizz kids -- have taken a potpourri of genes from right across the entire stretch of the animal kingdom, and managed to assemble an artificial genome that results in what look like two amorphous -- but nevertheless suspiciously penile – blob-like organisms, christened, with characteristic facetiousness, Fred & Ginger.
The point is to produce a new species that can then be harvested for its unique proteins (this whole project does seem rather like overkill, given its rather humdrum aim), and is financed by a typically shady, money-mad pharmaceuticals conglomeration. But Natali is an intelligent, versatile writer and director, and is canny enough to spot the potential of this heady material for providing more than the usual over-earnest warning about the dangers of smug know-it-alls playing God; after Nicoli and Kast illicitly introduce human DNA into their new artificial genome, the film actually becomes a warped family drama, played out in the arena of a horror fable that takes almost the entire history of the creature feature in cinema as its genetic background.
Both visually and thematically we can see a large dose of James Whale’s “The Bride of Frankenstein” combined with a smidgen of everything from “Aliens” to “ET” along the way, as the ‘child’ Nicoli and Kast have inadvertently created grows up in accelerated time. On its journey the film manages to incorporate numerous references to both the biological body horror of early David Cronenberg and the fantastical mythical monsters inhabiting the work of Guillermo de Toro. When, mid-way through the film, Kast and Nicoli host a snazzy public shareholders meeting in which they introduce the original Fred and Ginger to an audience for the first time, we just know that it’s meant to be the film’s equivalent of the scene in King Kong when Carl Denham displays a chained up Kong to the world -- with similar disastrous consequences.
The film may well rehearse all the major sequences of every important monster flick you’ve ever seen during the unfolding of the plot, but the development of the human/animal hybrid creature also recapitulates in a rough fashion all the evolutionary transitions in the journey from single cell to mammalian man; beginning with blob-like pulsing Ediacaran frond, it later becomes an amphibious humanoid, then develops feathered wings, then actually changes sex to finally turn, Frankenstein-like, on its creators. But the real transformation that becomes the main focus and concern of the film is that of the two scientist protagonists. This film is really a perverse scientific coming-of-age drama, in which two highly intelligent but essentially irresponsible kidults are given the whole of nature as a playground and spend their days playing in it, under the auspices of a corporation called N.E.R.D (Nucleic Exchange Research and Development), which is headed by a maternal company head (Simona Maicanescu) who has developed something of a nurturing relationship, particularly with Elsa.
Clive and Elsa live together like clever, over-indulged adolescents in an apartment decorated with anime artwork, and compose their hybrid species under the influence of thumping techno or modern jazz. When Elsa introduces her own DNA into the mix to create Dren (nerd spelled backwards – appropriately, the first word their creature learns to spell!), the couple also have to undergo a rapid transformation that doesn’t always exactly take the normal route of parental development.
First of all, Clive is jealous of the attention the infant creature gets from Elsa and attempts to drown it, only to inadvertently ‘discover’ her amphibious stage. The film is cleverly cagy throughout about how it reveals the two protagonists’ often unpalatable emotions, and the true feelings underpinning their apparently objective scientific experiments. In an attempt to hide their illicit new creation from the Company, Elsa takes it out to her parents’ deserted, ramshackle farm in the countryside (giving the film a Gothic turn, after the antiseptic surroundings of the clinic in which they’ve given birth to their creation) – and this is where things take on a disturbing aspect: Elsa, it emerges, is a recovered victim of childhood abuse at the hands of her mother, and now begins reliving the abusive relationship she herself once experienced as a child, but under the pretence of objective scientific exploration. Dren (Delphine Chanéac) is rapidly passing through normal human stages of development, despite her strange appearance and alien ways, but (just like Elsa was as a child), has to be kept locked away from the world. When Dren, in teenage rebellion mode, finally rebels against her ‘mother’ and kills a pet cat with her stinger-tail, Elsa chains her to a workbench and forcibly amputates the weapon from the screaming creature, all the while ‘documenting’ the procedure in bland objective medico-speak. This conflation of the discourse, procedures and the methods of science with domestic child abuse and violence may be contentious enough, but Clive’s relationship with the strangely alluring creature is even more on the edge. Perhaps the inclusion of Elsa’s DNA within the random mix of animal characteristics that define Dren, has reminded him of a more innocent, prelapsarian Elsa, but Clive begins a sexual liaison with the still child-like creature after she develops a teenage crush on him (he is the only male she has ever been exposed to, after all), and also after her next stage of development occurs, which gives her feathered wings and a distinctly angel-like appearance: an extremely bizarre allegorical manifestation of man’s attempt to dominate and remould nature, if ever there was one!
“Splice” is always inventive and perversely watchable and is dominated by a trio of great performances from the always wonderful actor/director Sarah Polley, and Adrein Brody, who seems to have finally accepted his fate as the go-to man for quirky male leads in oddball indie films, while the real star of the film is Delphine Chanéac, who plays the adult version of Dren with a wonderful, almost alchemical combination of human charm and alien strangeness. The synergistic harmony between her performance and the incorporated CGI is a testament to just how far the technology has now come, and the fact that this is a relatively small-scale, independent feature rather than a Hollywood epic just underlines the achievement all the more. The script sags a bit under the massive weight of the multifarious, gymnastic emblematic functions it is called upon to perform, with not enough time allotted to really explore the many ideas it touches on to their full potential; references and allusions seem to skip by with barely a pause before we’re on to the next film quote or coded plot device exploring the subtext of modern biological science. As strange and transgressive as it may be, one can’t help wondering just what dark corners it would have explored if David Cronenberg in his prime had originally come up with the idea. The film only really manages to touch lightly on some very unusual areas before pulling away again, and ends with a rather conventional final act before delivering a coda one can see coming a mile away. Nevertheless, it’s a film that’s worth seeing, beautifully shot and performed and with excellent special effects.
The UK DVD from Optimum (also available in the Blu-ray format) features a very strong transfer and a robust 5.1 Surround Sound audio track, and comes brimming with nearly an hour-and a-half’s worth of extra features that satisfyingly explore just about every aspect of the film, from its conception to completion. There is a 24 minute interview with Vincenzo Natali in which he talks about what influenced the original story, the screenplay’s extended pre-production, Guilermo del Toro’s involvement, the design of Dren and the experience of making the movie, among many other things. We then get a 33 minute featurette which explores the previous work of Natali and includes a lot of revealing behind the scenes footage shot on the set of “Splice”. Most of the subjects discussed by the director in the preceding interview are covered again, but in a lot more detail. Strangely, the third featurette, labelled as ‘Behind the Scenes’ on the DVD menu, turns out to be a more conventional making of documentary, running at just over half-an-hour and featuring interviews with cast and crew and a detailed look at the creation of the CGI work, and how it was combined with Delphine Chanéac’s performance footage to create the disturbing more-than-human apparition that is Dren. There is also a trailer included.
This is a flawed but commendable effort which gets a very worthwhile DVD release and some great extras.