Science Fiction is not my preferred genre. Automatically a few doubts about this review and my ability to deliver unbiased analysis should be crawling around in your brain. It’s not that I don’t care for the genre or have anything against it, it’s just that it was never something I routinely exposed myself to as a young film geek. Some would probably suppose that my lacking in avid fandom for the genre would result in my expectations being decidedly lower than those of a die-hard Sci-Fi geek, on the contrary. I don’t walk into a movie like Splice with a few marked expectations. I demand some sort of concrete idea buried within the futuristic society or the advanced science that is metaphorically explored or I expect it to pull double duty as a good horror film. I think Splice does both remarkably well. In fact, it’s one of the better Sci-Fi films I have seen in quite some time.
Splice is the story of two scientists, who are also involved with one another, hard at work trying to crack all manner of genetic codes. They are fusing the genetic material of various types of life in order to create an entirely new organism that can then produce valuable proteins used to fight diseases. The smitten biologists are confident that their work is on the right track until tragedy strikes at a convention and their parent company threatens to pull the plug. In desperation, they decide to cross the ethical point of no return and add human DNA to the mix. The result of their experiment is Dren, an amalgamation of several animals but predominantly exhibiting distinctly human features. Their excitement turns to horror when Dren displays erratic, violent behavior. Have they made the breakthrough of the century or a terrible, irreversible mistake?
I liked Splice a lot, and I feel I’m right on the cusp of loving it. For me, Splice represents exactly what Science-Fiction is supposed to be. There is a stigma, and perhaps at one point I held this same belief, that Sci-Fi is a juvenile, plastic genre that produces little more than spectacular effects and mindless fantasy. But great Sci-Fi takes a very tangible societal issue or question and uses technology to emphasize the universality and timelessness of those issues. The interesting thing about Splice is that it is less interested in examining the obvious moral quandary of cloning as it is the question of abortion. At the beginning of the film, our protagonists Clive (Adrien Brody) & Elsa (Sarah Polley) discuss the possibility of having a child and while he is strongly for the idea, she is staunchly opposed. The argument appears to placed on the back burner in the wake of Dren’s arrival, but if you listen closely to their conversations about what to do about Dren and how to handle the situation, they are echoing the conversations of a young couple struggling with the abortion decision; their actions and the shift in their relationship are also indicative of such a decision.
Beyond the meatier social commentary of the film, I really enjoyed that it once again blurred the division between Sci-Fi and horror; done so often at this point that notating the demarcation seems inappropriate. When Dren doesn’t get what she wants, the results are terrifying thanks in large part to her inhuman strength. What made her character so interesting to me is how her emotional states directly influenced the discovery of each of her hidden attributes. The reason I enjoyed this so much is that it flies in the face of the idea that science is a purely stoic endeavor and emphasizes how emotionally complex the pursuit of discovery can be. The horror really builds in the finale into a full-blown monster film which is fantastic.
Vincenzo Natali amps the entertainment value with some spectacular special effects integration and superior gross-out moments. The scene at the convention wherein the demonstration turns ugly is one of the most satisfying gore sequences in any film ever. The two organisms, in which the two researchers had invested so much time and energy, suddenly turn on one another and transform the aquarium in which they are housed into a bucket of blood; the cherry being when it dumps on the first few rows like a macabre Gallagher concert.
As to the special effects, I love the design of Dren. Though her human characteristics become most prominent in her design, the added touches of separate animal traits are very cool. But more than Dren’s design, I love the approach to bringing that character to life. Instead of simply going full CG, Natali decided to use computer graphics as a tool for augmenting the practical makeup work. The result is an otherworldly type creature who is also fully expressive and who can easily interact with her costars but also undergo unbelievable changes. I love that Dren’s design and the extent of her abilities keeps getting pushed further and further to illustrate the mistake these two have made.
I can definitely see where people are not going to like this film and I can’t blame them one iota. There are some actor choices that are a bit weak and end up doing more harm than good to the film’s cohesiveness. For example, Sarah Polley gets progressively more hostile toward Dren as the film progresses. While this is explained by her character’s backstory, it took me out of the world of the film a couple of times because it was so extreme. I eventually weighed her intense bitchiness against her motivations and saw that the ideas were appropriate, but I think Polley overstates the point in her performance. Beyond that, I found the acting to be more than solid and the back-and-forth relationship between these two certifiable nerds was incredibly charming.
But overall, Splice is fantastic. It delivered everything I could have asked from a Sci-Fi flick and was never boring; a fear that had been festering in me since I watched the initial trailer. The last shot of the film, though admittedly very predictable, nevertheless succeeds in putting the metaphorical bow on top. I think this will be the film that serves as a gateway for those unfamiliar with Natali’s work to go back and revisit his cannon. My only hope is that it scares up enough buzz to keep him making smaller genre films that pack this kind of punch.
The Upside: Brilliant, poignant, scary Sci-Fi flick that fires on all cylinders.
The Downside: Some questionable acting choices may turn some off to the characters.
On the Side: Splice made its world premiere at Sitges in October 2009, then played at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Click below to watch the Splice trailer: