aka Nouvelle espèce
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Starring: Sarah Polley, Adrien Brody, Delphine Chanéac
Running time: 104 minutes
Genre: horror, science-fiction, thriller
Neonatal-i stylee: Splice delivers, literally, as it opens and we experience birth from the perspective of a newborn critter being brought into life by the rockstar scientist couple of Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley). The critter turns out to be one of two maple leaf-tongued (they’re Canadian!) chimeric horrors named Fred and Ginger, seemingly spliced together from the DNA of a loogie and that creepy limbless guy from Tod Browning’s Freaks. When introduced, the pair (male and female they created them) bond touchingly, and it seems that Clive and Elsa’s latest project is destined for success.
High on pure scientific discovery with visions of human hybrids and miracle cures dancing in their heads, Clive and Elsa walk into a meeting with the financial and operational heads of Nucleic Exchange Research and Development (yes, N.E.R.D.,) who proceed to kill their buzz with a harsh dose of capitalist reality. Playing God is très expensive, they’re in the private sector, and so they need to start bringing in the big bucks. So, from now on, discovery is put on the back burner until they can start synthesizing the new proteins and compounds that Fred and Ginger make possible to make everyone rich and fund further research. Besides, the bosses point out, at this early stage the outrage at using human DNA would be pretty extreme.
Too young, idealistic, and in love (and being such big know-it-alls) to postpone for anything silly like moral or financial reasons the couple plunge into human splicing in secret, just to see if they can do it. (Just the tip?) Of course, things go further than planned and before they’re anywhere near ready, they find themselves ankle deep in amniotic fluid and over their heads in parental drama. Their creation, Dren, grows rapidly, forcing everything else in their lives into the background. Previously an almost perfect couple, Clive and Elsa now find themselves at odds over how to deal with Dren, who is becoming more difficult, unpredictable, and deadly with each passing day.
Stylish and smart, Splice features Cronenbergian-levels of squick, as well as fascinating meditations on the meanings of marriage, pregnancy, abortion, childbirth, and parenting. Natali establishes tension early on in all aspects of the film, but it sadly peters out by the silly finale. Perhaps too varied for hardcore horror and sci-fi fans, and too intense for mainstream audiences, Splice was a box office stillbirth, but celebrated by most critics.
Fisty: A bit disingenuous, aren’t we, with that synopsis? Let’s be blunt: Elsa is the dynamo in this relationship–at least until Dren comes along–and the whole project rests largely on her shoulders. She’s the one who pressures Clive into experimenting with human DNA, and she’s the one who refuses at every opportunity to give the project up. Splice begins with the premise that while Clive wants to progress in their relationship and plans on children one day, Elsa doesn’t want kids–not outside of a laboratory. She frightened, in part because of her rocky past with a possibly crazy, abusive mother, and in part because, well, having kids is a pretty big and intimidating undertaking. At least, it ought to be. There’s a lot of awesome mystery involved in the organic process of pregnancy and childbirth, not to mention parenting forever after. And Splice nicely explores all of the terrors a modern, liberated woman might have about it.
Bill: I’d really like to stand up for Clive, but I can’t. He’s a bit of a pushover. Only once in the movie does he really show any kind of initiative to act decisively on his own. He basically lets Elsa run him, only ever offering fairly weak resistance to whatever she wants, which his younger brother calls him out on at one point. He can’t get the work done at the lab, leaving Elsa to go save their jobs (though, she did have fresher tissue samples.) He can’t even be the sexual aggressor. He just strokes Elsa’s leg until she takes over. And he isn’t just that way with Elsa either. He can’t handle Dren. He can’t handle her when she’s a baby. He ends up holding his ears and letting Elsa take care of her. He can’t handle her when she’s a child, instead forcing Elsa to be the disciplinarian. He has a brief moment during what I would guess to be an early pubescent stage of Dren’s development, while teaching her to dance, that he uses this obviously adoring and uncertain tween-thing to be “The Man,” something he can’t do with Elsa, trying to explain to Dren that the man should always lead. As soon as she gains some confidence and enters adolescence, however, he becomes a doormat for her, too.
It isn’t just Clive. Males, in general, in Splice are all either completely incompetent, weak-willed or both, as well as constantly out-classed by and subservient to their female superiors. The only exceptions are the few times when being male instantly makes them violent, territorial murderers and rapists.
Fisty: Odd, I seem to recall someone babbling that all males in Splice were depicted just as violent, murdering rapists. But here you’re saying they’re violent wimps? Interesting. I think you’re projecting again, Bill. This is not King of Queens or According to Jim. (Bill: So I get a little annoyed with the PR war on masculinity. Sue me. Fisty: NO SUCH THING.) It’s a metaphor for starting a family. But if it makes you feel better, you could just as easily say that all the women in Splice (what few there were, even considering the small cast) were castrating bitches. And violent, murderous ones, too, who placed reproduction above the needs or concerns of their partners–or just about anyone, really. Unbunch your nuts already. And neither would I call Gavin or Barlow incompetent, weak-willed, or subservient. You’re grossly generalizing.
Bill: Oh, come on. They are such buffoons. Gavin is completely reliant on his brother for his job and can’t even tell the difference between a boy and a girl and Barlow is scared shitless of Chorot and is completely dismissed by Elsa. “When the REAL scientists show up, ” she says to him. But, you’re right that the women don’t fare any better, often shown behaving like selfish tyrants. Perhaps, if the characters are a family, then the movie is a home, and it’s still the case in our society, at least at the moment, that the woman is the central figure in the home and the man has a lesser role (not to trivialize dudes.) And, yeah, the chicks can be pretty violent in this, too.
Fisty: It wouldn’t have bothered you AT ALL if Gavin’s role were female instead–and lest we forget, EVERYONE in the lab relies on Clive and Elsa keeping their shit together and the project going, or they are out of a job … and plush scienterrific jobs are probably not so easy to find–or if Clive had said that to Barlow. Like I said, you are totally projecting. Elsa IS a real scientist, so why shouldn’t she scorn a bureaucrat mucking about in her lab? I LIKE that Elsa is aggressive and sometimes unpleasant. It’s a relief that she isn’t relegated to just demonstrating maternal instincts, or being the great moralizer; too many women in horror and sci-fi are left to fulfill that Victorian notion that women are inherently moral–or at least, more moral than the men around. Instead, from the very start, Elsa chivvies Clive along persuading him into ever further transgressions, until she hasn’t a leg to stand on when she makes a volta face and accuses him of being the great transgressor. Just by continuing their experiments and creating Dren, Elsa takes them into a place without rules, where they’re left to create their own. Unfortunately, neither of them is really capable of doing so. Like a lot of adults lingering in a twilight world of post-adolescence, Elsa and Clive are … clueless.
Bill: They are and because they are, they both make some severe mistakes in how they deal with Dren. They both crack up at various points. They screw up. Still, they aren’t bad people. They aren’t unlikable. They both care and they both show compassion. These aren’t one-note characters. Even when they’re at their most despicable, they aren’t evil, just angry, stressed or mixed up.
Fisty: Elsa herself isn’t self-aware enough to realize what she is doing when she creates Dren. Though she categorically refuses to have children with Clive, she leaps into creating a human-animal hybrid using her own DNA, creating a surrogate child in the controlled environment of her lab. For someone who is supposed to be so smart, she sure is stupid about her motives for the experiment. Elsa, because of her past with a crazy mother, seeks control–and she cannot control pregnancy or childbirth and rearing unless it’s in the guise of an experiment, with a specimen. After all, then she can have a family and a career, but in one package instead of juggling the two! (One could even choose to interpret this as a danger of the scientific world in which Elsa and Clive live, that she/they fear anything outside of certain rigid parameters, but that just seems silly.)
It’s not so unusual to fear pregnancy and childbirth, and to have to cope with the idea of certain things being out of your control–they will happen regardless. MY GOD, Dren’s birth scene is an absolute nightmare of hospital birth trauma. Now, Eli and I are planning on reproducing sometime soon, and I am frankly terrified, so I get the idea. It is normal and rational to be anxious and afraid of reproduction, but Elsa’s reaction is pathological. Not to mention that she drags Clive into it in a neat reversal of the usual “tricked into pregnancy” coup de grace administered when one partner (*cough*THE MAN*cough*) is reluctant to breed. That was pretty funny.
Bill: I want to talk about Dren. First, a few props to Delphine Chanéac for making her more than just a standard movie monster, giving us a creature with personality and pathos. That’s essential to a good Frankenstein story. Also… OMG, so cute! I want one! She’s like a little fleshy mouser from TMNT. NO! She’s Mew. She’s an adorable little live action Mew. Then, when she grows up… total genetic lolita hotness. She’s like Mewtwo if Mewtwo were a porn starlet. Kind of alien looking, sure, and slightly androgynous, yes, but she has a tail. Man, I dig chicks with tails. She’s the sexiest only vaguely human character in a movie since Helena Bonham Carter in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. When she grabs that rail with her foot and does that thing with her hips… OMG! I want one! Then, when those wing things pop out, kind of like Shuna Sassi’s quills in Nightbreed… Fuck yeah!
She kind of grossed me out, actually, and I like aye-ayes and naked mole rats. She’s got an uncanny valley kind of thing going on, but um, alive. At least in the face. For me, she was cutest when she was newborn–and least human (and more like a bunny head).
Speaking of gross, Natali went all out with the squick. Suitably for a movie taking place in a lab with human hybrids and featuring a crazy reproductive psychosexual subtext, there’s a lot of … fluids. And goo. Fred and Ginger are basically goo balls that sprout tentacles. Dren’s “birth” scene, the delivery from the host uterus tank thing, is especially nasty. There’s broken glass and amniotic fluid EVERYWHERE, and meconium and placenta, and just nasty nasty nasty. With all the screaming and trauma, it’s a perfect commentary on the nightmare of a hospital birth gone awry.
Bill: Don’t forget the splatterthon in front of a live studio audience. Those poor people should’ve had a Gallagher tarp. Maybe that scene was meant to be like going to your kid’s school play and watching him walk out with his shoe untied, trip, then vomit on stage. I have to wonder if Fred and Ging were acting out because Mommy and Daddy were giving all of their attention to the baby. One good thing about Splice, while the main themes and metaphors are obvious, maybe even obnoxiously so, there’s a lot of room to play with various interpretations of everything else in the movie. It’s a movie that deals with themes that beg to be OVER-analyzed. It’s fun think about and discuss.
That starts to break down, though, towards the end, when things get a little too Freudian. If you ain’t down with Freud, the last act won’t really work for you. It didn’t for me.
Fisty: Neither I. And I think that may be what upset so many of the fan people, they were unwilling to deal with the masses of Freudian associations thrown at them by Natali: transference, incest, Oedipus, Elektra, the genital stage, phallocentrism, etc. Especially at the end, when the nice, tense thriller devolves into a silly, clichéd action chase, culminating in an ultimate transference. And of course that’s when Dren mutates–like how Fred and Ginger switched sex because of … well, why? Stress? A coping mechanism? Did they ever really explain that?
Bill: Not that I saw. The sudden biological and behavioral changes just happen with no real cause other than it being the end of the movie and an excuse for some action. It was said previously in the film that Dren’s accelerated life would be very short anyway. We didn’t need a big confrontation or a sudden body count. Natali has said that his films always end implying that there may be another story. I think he might of rushed to get to that point with Splice and lost what could’ve been a much more emotional ending that would’ve been more in line with the rest of the movie.
Fisty: Yeah. The crap climax–combined with already touchy subject matter–took a thoughtful and genuinely creepy sci-fi thriller cum horror into a Hollywood-typical action chase sequence, and ultimately alienated well, pretty much everyone. Except critics. For the most part. I hope that Natali keeps it up though, because horror needs more intelligent voices.
Eli: Shouldn’t have had sex with her after midnight, dude.