The Best Movie Critic + horror

Splice

30 minutes before the end of Splice, I would have told you that it was the movie of the year. And it still might be, but given what happens in the last 30 minutes, I’m not sure I want to see it again anytime soon. Splice is dark and twisted for its entire running time, but the end went to some dark places I just wasn’t prepared for. Make no mistake, Splice is a great movie, probably an important movie, definitely something you must see, but also quite possibly permanently damaging to that little light in your soul.

Splice, written and directed by Vincenzo Natali, stars Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody as a pair of very successful married scientists – Elsa and Clive – who go against their company’s wishes and Frankenstein together an artificially produced live being from splicing together human and animal DNA. Elsa and Clive, by the way, are the names of the actress and actor who played the Bride of Frankenstein and Dr. Frankenstein in James Whale’s movies. Woah, did I just blow your mind!? Elsa and Clive’s monster, “Dren” (Delphine Chaneac), looks like a fleshy mouse-kangaroo as a newborn but blossoms into the hot Goth girl you went to high school with but with three joints in her legs. Should they treat Dren as a cognitive, feeling, thinking being? Or do the approach her as the non-human subject of a lab experiment? The answer to that question plays out devastatingly over the course of the movie, and brings out the worst insecurities, shortcomings, and character flaws in Elsa and Clive.

Our science nerd protagonists are obviously in a state of arrested development themselves, and have absolutely no business whatsoever raising a child, human or otherwise. Their immaturity, selfishness, pettiness, wishy-washiness, and … other stuff I’m not going to spoil make Elsa and Clive quite possibly the worst parents ever to grace the big screen. I would love to watch this movie with a panel of parenting psychologists and then have a heated debate about nature vs. nurture in the context of this movie. How much of how Dren develops is imbedded in her DNA and how much is due to how she’s treated by her “parents?”

In addition to the loving Frankenstein riffs, Splice also jams on Oedipus, Freud, David Cronenberg, and a broad swath of gender and queer studies. Vincenzo Natali’s movie also has a lot to say about the nature of family, human relationships, and the relationship between creator and creation. Splice can be viewed through many lenses. I’m not yet ready to have any of these conversations; at this point I’m just trying to identify them. And if more people will see Splice, I think these are conversations we’ll be having for a long time.

I read Lisa Kennedy’s 3-star review of Splice for the Denver Post today, and apart from being a little bit cursory and a little bit out of her depth (the lab scene is in Aliens, not Alien, lady! God…), her main complaint appears to be that the protagonists are too cool for their own good. They walk around in Matrix leather, have an apartment that looks like it was designed by Takashi Murakami, and listen to hipster music while they work in the lab. All of those things are true, but I completely disagree with her assessment. Like Ms. Kennedy, at first glance the way Elsa and Clive dress, talk, and act makes one suspect that Vincenzo Natali is out of touch with how real people really speak and act. Sci-fi directors from George Lucas to Splice producer Guillermo del Toro have struggled with this, so the knee-jerk reaction is not surprising. However, it’s soon apparent that it is the characters themselves, not the filmmakers, who are dangerously isolated from the world around them. Follow me here: Clive and Elsa are two of the brightest, most talented, and most successful geneticists/biologists in the world. They have been given carte blanche by their company to do whatever they want. They’re like the rock stars of the science world, but they’re still science geeks. They’re not actually cool. When they wear plaid pants and combat boots, they stick out like sore thumbs. But it’s not like they have any actual social interactions to help inform their wardrobe. Their style is hipster refracted through the lens of people who doesn’t get out much. They make money for their company (or at least they used to), and when money is coming in, the ties and slacks stay in the closet and the studded trench coats come out. I think Ms. Kennedy wanted Elsa and Clive to act more like “real” scientists. I’ve met a few scientists, and some of them would probably wear studded trench coats to the lab if they could. Just sayin’. Rather than making Splice less realistic, I thought this was a nice touch: it makes perfect sense that the scientists who splice human DNA with a cornucopia of unidentified animal DNA bits would be, you know, total freaks.

Splice maintains classic literary and philosophical themes and motifs while also suggesting new, bending moralities, individuated and radical subcultural activity, malleable gender and species identification, and a flexible, nuanced approached to sexual attraction. With the subset of people who care to talk and think about these undercurrents, the outcome of the movie will be a point of great controversy. In the history of movies, too many horror flicks make the “Other” a source of horror, be it sex, race, gender identification, ideology, or in this case anthropomorphic Goth kangaroo-mouse. Far too few movies could be considered radical in terms of audience identification and outcome – off the top of my head, The Bride of Frankenstein and Ginger Snaps, but even the radical characters in those movies have their fair share of self-loathing. It’s going to take some time for me to figure out where Spice sits on that spectrum. As I walked out of the theater, I was slightly disappointed that the “out there” lives depicted in the movie ended up being so nauseatingly cruel. After a day’s reflection, I’m not sure anything about Splice is that black and white, and whether the movie leaves any room for positive freakiness will be a source of great debate.

But, man, when I say things get nauseatingly cruel, I am not exaggerating. Whatever room for hope there is in Splice’s first hour is decisively squashed as the characters move toward their final fates. At first, I was convinced that this movie screamed for catharsis. There had to be a release, some moment of triumph. I was thinking about it all wrong, though. The lack of catharsis is intentional. Despite its outlandish premise, this movie is more brutally honest and realistic about the inherent sadomasochistic elements in human relationships than anything I’ve seen in a long time. Who knows, maybe the premise isn’t that outlandish either. The movie isn’t all seriousness and darkness, though. It’s actually very enjoyable at times, and even when the situation goes from bad to worse, Splice maintains an appropriately sick, twisted sense of humor. You will stifle laughs and vomit in equal measure.

Splice reminds me of great classic horror movies that cause scandal at their release, but become beloved as genre favorites as time goes on. It’s unfortunate that no one’s seeing it, because if there was any interest generated in Splice whatsoever, it really would be scandalous.

-Ben

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