MOVIE REVIEW: Splice (2010)
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After their initial creation of new life forms, two genetic engineers conduct a secret experiment to create a hybrid human being, ignoring any legal, ethical or moral boundaries.
PROS: Good title and creature design; Delphine Chanéac as Dren.
CONS: Predictable, idiot plotting; characters acting stupidly throughout; hamfisted, pretentious direction from Vincenzo Natali.
Splice opens with a moment of ominous creation…the viewer knows this based on the background music playing over the opening credits (a series of veins bulging across pale skin to spell out cast and crew). In a Toronto lab, genetic engineers Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody, who looks physically wounded at having been cast) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley, seemingly wondering if this role will kill her career) act as midwives to a hybrid lifeform (dubbed “Ginger”) looking like a cross between the monstrous puddlinglike offspring in David Lynch’s Eraserhead and a phallic tumor from David Cronenberg’s The Brood.
Seeing the potential for incredible advances in medicine (to say nothing of the thrill of being the figureheads of a scientific revolution), Nicoli and Kast approach Joan Chorot (simona Maicanescu) of the Nucleic Exchange Research and Development (NERD, a groaner of such proportions that I almost yelped out a derisive laugh during the press screening I attended) Corporation with a proposal to use human DNA in the next phase of their experiment. Chorot, showing surprising sense (far more than either Nicoli or Kast), says no, so the rockstar splicers (or at the very least middle-aged slackers) show none and begin their own experiment, using human DNA mixed with that of one of their hybrids to create yet another new lifeform.
From the time Mary Shelley created the first, elemental modern Prometheus in 1818, the mad scientist has become such a standard trope in the science fiction genre, so often used, as often parodied, that it cannot even be called a cliché. In a way, since Frankenstein‘s initial publication, its titular character has become the nodal point for any creative artist who wishes to tell the story of scientific progress gone amok, with the underlying message that There Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. Indeed, one could make the argument that most science fiction primarily is a retelling of the classic tale.
Given that, one should not be surprised to see Mary Shelley’s considerable influence in Splice. And it says quite a bit that moments of Splice show a debt to not only Frankenstein but also to the oeuvre of Cronenberg. (The movie was shot in Toronto, the location of many of Cronenberg’s films.)
But somewhere between the story by Vincenzo Natali and Anoinette Terry Bryant and the screenplay by Natali, Bryant and Doug Taylor, something goes as wrong as the Frankenstein story it tries to tell.
Things, of course, start to go wrong for Nicoli and Kast when they embark on their clandestine project. (Given that the movie sets up a great deal of time showing both characters as a bit geeky, one wonders why they would even attempt something so foolish. Why is it the scientists in these movies act as if they’ve never read Shelley’s novel, or seen any one of the countless movie adaptation?) They create a human hybrid which they ultimately name “Dren” (it’s “nerd” spelled backwards, get it? Natali, who also directed, flenses anything resembling subtlety from the film), which, of course, shows extremely high intelligence as well as odd physical developments (such as a tail). Of course, Dren also grows and learns rapidly. (Delphine Chanéac does an admirable job of balancing Dren’s human and alien characteristics.) When she gets too big for the lab, they move her to Kast’s childhood home (a Norman Rockwell-style house, had Rockwell been a crack addict), at which point the movie ceases to become a rather laughably absurd retelling of Frankenstein and transforms (much like Dren herself) into a bizarre hybrid of William Faulkner and the Weekly World News.
Idiocy abounds. Upon Dren’s “birth,” she escapes to hide among waste barrels in the laboratory, leaving Kast to chase after it and not allowing Nicoli to do the sensible thing and seal off and gas the lab. Nicoli and Kast present their hybrid life forms to an awaiting public, only to see it go wrong in a hilarious mélange of Scanners (Cronenberg again) and a show at Sea World, where the first three rows of the press conference should have been warned of a splash zone. (I’m guessing that nobody in the audience of this conference has ever seen one of these movies, either.) And, surprisingly enough, when the press conference turns into a fiasco, Chorot does not fire them (which leads me to believe that NERD is not a private corporation but a government program).
Natali is no stranger to science fiction. His Cube was a spare, economic picture that bore more than a passing resemblance to Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” but showcased more than a little style and vision, and subsequent entries (Cypher, Nothing) showed a high comfort level with the genre’s trappings and ideas. (He is also helming adaptations to two classic sf novels, J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise and William Gibson’s Neuromancer.) This time, however, he lets a lack of restraint get in the way of the movie, directing everything with a lack of grace or far too much pretention. Moreover, allowing himself to wear his inspirations on his sleeve hampers what vision he hoped to bring.
The irony of Splice is that it is the most timely science fiction movie to be released in a while, especially when one considers Craig Venter’s recent developments in synthetic life. But Venter behaved like a real scientist. He appeared to exercise caution when conducting his experiment, a caution that the scientists in Splice cannot heed. We should be glad such lunacy is confined to this movie, and be glad that Venter, apparently, read Frankenstein.
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