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Entries in Splice [2010] (1)

Friday
Jun042010

Splice, 2010

Fuck Yourself

Note: To quote Patton Oswalt, my knowledge of science begins and ends with, “Salt is salty.” So when you read words like “proteins”, “DNA”, and “plasma sacs” in this review, please understand that I’m not literally referring to these things. Maybe I should have paid more attention in elementary school science class instead of daydreaming about movies.

Since its resurgence in the last decade, Hollywood has churned out and worn out several sub-genres of horror film: American adaptations of Japanese ghost movies; zombie pictures; vampire pictures; torture porn; remakes; and, most desperately of all, sequels to remakes. Just when I thought the genre had officially eaten itself, along come two movies that re-affirm my faith that there are still scary, original movies to be made.

I’ve written about The Human Centipede before, so today I’m going to talk about Splice. Both films resurrect a sub-genre that I didn’t know I’d been missing (craving) until I saw them: the mad scientist movie. While the godawful trailers make this look like a knock-off of Species, director Vincenzo Natali and co-writer Antoinette Terry Bryant have made something fairly original. Yes, Splice is a man-makes-monster ethics thriller, but—up to a certain point—it’s also a movie that takes the science of its fiction very seriously.

Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley star as Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast, respectively, a rock star scientist couple who work at a major pharmaceutical company. They’ve recently had a breakthrough in creating a hybrid animal life form whose genetic mish-mash could produce cancer-and-disease-curing proteins (the pulsating male and female plasma sacs are called Fred and Ginger). For Clive and Elsa, their success means that the door for human experimentation has been flung wide open; their employer, however, is only interested in extracting what it needs from Fred and Ginger and getting it to market as quickly as possible.

In the great tradition of protagonists going rogue, our heroes secretly infuse a new strain of their genetic masterpiece with a bit of human DNA. The matter gestates for a few days inside a giant metal-and-glass womb before emerging as a creature with the face of a walrus, the legs of a chicken, and the personality of a scared cat; oh, and I almost forgot the tail with a poisonous stinger. Elsa convinces Clive not to kill it outright, and the two end up raising the monster in secret, watching it grow into something resembling a human being. They call her Dren.

Dren continues to develop at an alarming rate, and Elsa and Clive smuggle her out of their lab and onto Elsa’s childhood farm. Typically, this is where a film like Splice would go off the rails. The monster would mutate into a giant, slimy, fanged thing and begin killing everyone in sight, slasher-style. Here, we watch Dren learn to dance and communicate using Scrabble tiles.

It’s a good sign when the teenagers sitting around me in the theatre start to get restless and/or leave. That means I’m watching something smart enough to bore them. And if you go into Splice expecting to be scared or grossed out, you’re likely to be disappointed. The story’s tension is derived from Clive and Elsa’s crumbling relationship and their uncertainty regarding Dren’s mental and physical stability. I’m sorry to say that Splice’s last fifteen minutes are pretty terrible; it’s as if the producers had promised the marketing department a body count and so decided to bring two of the three peripheral characters out to the farm for the sole purpose of being murdered (at which point, I became restless and wanted to leave).

There are so many great things about Splice that make it a solid movie. Brody and Polley are terrific and believable as young, pop-savvy mega-nerds; they blast heavy metal and jazz in the lab and decorate their apartment with vinyl toys and Manga canvases. They exist in that mostly-unseen-in-horror-movies realm of grown-ups that are smart but not stuffy and youthful but not (entirely) stupid. The actors have great chemistry, even when they’re fighting about why Clive thought it would be okay to have sex with the walrus chicken.

And what a walrus chicken! As the mature version of Dren, Delphine Chaneac is eerie and sensual, and ultimately an innocent. Every movement and quizzical look indicates an internal struggle between the various beasts inside her, and even the tender moments between her and her parents are underscored by the audience’s fear that she might snap.

Assisting Chaneac in creating this character are the film’s digital effects artists. Even before we see the full-grown version of Dren, they treat us to unique iterations of the monster, from the first glimpse of the wriggly, phallic cocoon to Dren’s pre-teen self, with the over-sized, perforated head and nervous, scurrying movements. Much of Splice plays out like a Discovery Channel special on impossible species, and it’s obvious that the filmmakers cared more about making Dren believable and not just an iconic killing machine.

Sadly, those last fifteen minutes nearly ruin the rest of the movie. There’s lots of fighting and running; some flying; a last-minute sex change; and the most bizarre rape scene ever (it turns out the human DNA belongs to Elsa—so when Dren becomes a male and, um, finds another use for the stinger, Splice sidesteps into a commentary on extreme self-loathing).

The capper, though, is really offensive. Splice ends with a brief speech by the head of the pharmaceutical company and a Big Reveal that will come as a surprise only to people who were texting or talking during the preceding five minutes, or who’ve not seen The House of the Devil. I was shocked by the sloppy finale, and could smell studio influence all over it.

But I’m still recommending Splice—and The Human Centipede, especially to you squeamish pansies who think it’s going to scar you for life or something (there are more disgusting things happening off the coast of Florida right now). It’s a flawed step in the right direction for a genre that is in danger of revisiting the film ghetto of the early 90s. The movie proves that horror movies don’t need gore or creative kills; strong characters; big, scary ideas; and the dark wonders of science do just fine.