Monday, November 08, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Splice (2010)

Since its literary beginnings long ago, the horror genre has been obsessed with the idea of mankind creating life via unnatural, perhaps even unholy means. 

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), and H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) are two important, legendary works that gaze at this idea; of the "modern Prometheus" re-shaping life to his new, and not entirely wise specifications.  Playing God, or "tampering in God's domain," as the cliche goes.

In terms of horror films, the decade of the 1990s represents the new golden age (after the 1950s) of such "science run amok" movies. 

 Movies such as The Unborn (1991) Jurassic Park (1993),  Species (1995), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), Alien Resurrection (1997), Mimic (1997), The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998), Deep Blue Sea (1999) and others all reflect rising American fears in the age of the Human Genome Project about the "DNA genie" being released from the bottle.

Given this particular historical context, it's no surprise that Vinenzo Natali's recently-released Splice (2010) was first envisioned/conceived as the director's follow-up to Cube in 1997.  Natali's new film thus feels very much of a piece with the above-listed 1990s productions; efforts in which Dr. Frankenstein's heirs manipulate modern genetic science to create dinosaurs, chimeras, aliens, insects, viruses and other beasties, often for "good causes," like the cure of Alzheimer's (Deep Blue Sea), or "Stricklers Disease" (Mimic), etc.

Intriguingly, the specific plot line of Splice also reaches all the way back to an obscure 1976 "science run amok" horror flick starring Rock Hudson and Barbara Carrera, titled Embryo

In that effort from director Ralph Nelson, a scientist named Paul Holliston (Hudson) re-shaped a fourteen-week old human fetus with "placental lactagen," a special growth hormone.  What he created, in a matter of days, was a fully-formed 25-year old woman -- Carrera's Victoria -- who knew nothing of the world and therefore was never appropriately socialized. 

Holliston taught his creation to read the Bible, to play chess, and to otherwise entertain him, before eventually becoming his "daughter's" -- *ahem* -- lover as well.  In Embryo,  the amoral Victoria was driven to commit murder over a hormonal imbalance that caused her to age and wither at a highly accelerated rate.

If you've seen Splice, you will recognize some notable similarities in narrative detail.  Natali's film involves two incredibly arrogant 21s century genetic engineers -- Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) -- who decide to introduce human DNA into their revolutionary experiments involving chimeras. 

Little Dren. She has her mommy's eyes...
And yes indeed, Elsa and Clive are named after the great actors who played the lead roles in the landmark 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein: Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive.

Working in secret for a big pharmaceutical corporation, Elsa and Clive create a not-quite human creature called Dren (first Abigail Chu and then Delphine Chaneau), a female being that is part-amphibious.  Dren also boasts an accelerated life-span, which means she will live, age and die while Elsa and Clive can watch and take notes, essentially.  She's their living petri dish.

Like Embryo's Victoria before her, Dren is lonely, confused and unsocialized, and Elsa - especially at first -- treats the creature has her own biological child.  There are good reasons for this, as the film makes clear in the later sequences set on Elsa's wintry and foreboding family farm.  Specifically, Elsa used her own DNA to create the "human" part of Dren.

Then, as an adolescent, Dren turns her burgeoning physical affections unexpectedly towards her "father," Clive...much in the same fashion as occurred in Embryo.

Yet, what makes Splice more than just a modern variation on an old tale like Embryo is its laser-like focus on the concept of Elsa and Clive not just as bad scientists, necessarily..but as bad parents

Together, Elsa, Clive and Dren form a family unit, yet the parents here don't seem to take their familial responsibilities  seriously.  Dren wants to bond with the adults, and still they just consider her a "mistake" they made after -- on a whim --noting "what's the worst that could happen?" when they decided to make a life.

Truly, this movie concerns those things that occur when irresponsibility conceiving a life is followed by a deeper moral wrong: irresponsibility in rearing that life.  Elsa quickly proves to be a psychologically-troubled, capricious Mother-Figure, playing out her own personal family drama on this new and innocent creation.  One scene finds Elsa cruelly and vindictively strapping Dren to a surgical table, cutting off a portion of her "alien" anatomy.  It's genuinely disturbing. The first thing Elsa does is take off Dren's clothes, an indication that the girl is not human to her; no more than a specimen.  A mother's "love" can be taken away just like that.

Then, weak-willed Clive makes the ultimate physical and emotional betrayal and has sexual intercourse with Dren, an adolescent who considers him a father-figure.  At best he's weak. At worst, he's monstrous.
Grown-up Dren, with Mom looking over her shoulder.

And that's the key to understanding Splice and it's modus operandi.. 

The "monsters" here are Elsa and Clive -- two arrogant, flippant, self-involved scientists/parents, who -- through their ill-considered actions -- irreparably harm another individual. 

Dren may be genetically different from her parents, but she is nonetheless a result of her biological nature (which they created) and her terrible upbringing (which they are also responsible for). 

Dren might be inhuman, but Elsa and Clive are inhumane.

Watching this film, you'll feel tremendous sympathy for the Dren character.  When she commits the equivalent of a rape at film's end (when she is no longer quite the Dren we know...) the horrid act may be all about instinct and the need of all living things to reproduce. Or it may be about the fact that she was -- if not raped by Clive -- at least emotionally and sexually violated by a man she trusted and loved.  What did she learn from this act? And from Elsa's cruel, heartless domination?

Like parent like kid?  Is this the generational cycle of violence and abuse, made manifest?  Dren was abused, and now she is the abuser.

From the movie's very first shot -- in which we gaze out of the birth canal at parents Clive and Elsa -- Splice asks viewers to contextualize the film as a story about what it means to be a parent.  It asks the viewer to weigh this couple's behavior, and ask some important moral questions about it.  Is this another life or is this just an experiment?  Is this about another being's sovereignty and rights, or is it about "what we can learn?" 

As parents, what are our responsibilities to new life?

It's very heady stuff, and if you read this blog often, you know I tend to admire horror movies that function gracefully on more than one level.  It's great if a horror movie is scary, for instance.  But a genre film achieves lasting greatness when it tells us something about our own human existence.  I think Splice pretty well qualifies on that rarefied second front. 

All along through the film, I kept thinking of my own actions -- my own behavior as a parent -- since the birth of my son.  I was aghast at how easily Clive and Elsa could rationalize away the pain and suffering they put Dren through.  How could you treat your children like this?  Like property.

The answer, of course, is that human adults abuse children every day.  Although Clive and Elsa possess special talents vis-a-vis their creation of life, they aren't out-of-the-norm in how they see child rearing, apparently.

In Splice, I especially admired how the film mirrors the life of a parent, from child's conception through adolescence, but with these two "bad" parents as our surrogates and negative examples. 

When Dren is first born, Elsa and Clive lose a lot of sleep, have no time for intimacy, and worry about things like messy feeding times.  And while taking care of their child around the clock, their work at the office suffers.

Anyone who has raised a baby knows how authentic these moments feel.  Sleep deprivation.  Frustration.  Loneliness.  But also great joy as your infant starts to become an individual with a real personality and takes amazing first steps into the larger world: speaking, relating, learning.   These passages involving Dren's growth and development in Splice are simply stellar, and deeply affecting in a very human, very intimate way.

But this is a horror film, of course, and something goes wrong.  At some point, Elsa and Clive forsake their roles as parents, and when -- threatened by Dren's rebellion in adolescence -- try to write her off as an "experiment."  They try to control her; reign her in; make her act in the fashion they desire.

Of course, this is part of parenting I have not yet really experienced, but will, no doubt.  At some point, children stop being cuddly and fun, and start to become demanding, rebellious and self-directed.  A good parent allows that growth to happen responsibly and a bad parent, I guess, begins to act antagonistically and imperiously.  Bad parents fail to recognize their children as individuals and not as extensions of their own desires.  That's what happens to Clive and Elsa.  When they don't like what Dren has done, they shout, "this experiment is over."  Like that's the end of it.  Like the life just never existed, never flourished, never interacted with them.

So yes, Splice is a view of arrogant, out-of-control, cutting-edge science.  But more than that, even, Splice is a view of arrogant, out-of-control, modern parenting.

Which do you think is the bigger threat, going forward?

Splice works better as twisted family drama than as straight-up horror film.  The battle sequences in a wintry thicket at the climax feel pre-programmed and rote, and I found myself wishing the story could have been resolved through character interaction rather than special effects sequences and shovel bludgeonings.  But the first two-thirds of this Frankenstein story will really tug at your heart.  Dren is a fantastic creation, and the film's special effects never disappoint.

The problem is that you come to identify so much with Dren that at film's end -- when the makers want to put Dren back in the "monster box" -- you can't quite believe it.  You can't quite get on board.  Not after you've seen how her parents treat her.  Not after you've seen her alone in that barn loving her pet cat...her only companion.

And also, who can truly blame Dren for her final, violent acts?  Her parents had it coming.  In fact, as the final scene proves, Elsa is willing to make the same mistake twice.

What's the worst that could happen?


  1. Great review, as always.

    I only saw Sarah Polley to be the bad parent because, through some kind of misguided hubris, she thought she could be a better mom then her mother was and, by learning the extra hard way that it isn't easy (not condoning her own mother's actions, of course) she took the 'easy' way out and was basically just as abusive.

    I saw Adrien Brody as the reluctant dad. . .perhaps someone in a relationship who finds he's going to be a father and is looking for a way out BUT then realizes his responsibility and ethical duty when the other 'parent' does not fufill their part of the bargain. We'll just ignore the whole Brody-on-Alien action when considering this point ;)

    This film was a massive talking point amongst friends for multiple days and one thing I kept debating was Sarah Polley's actions. One day I detested her and another I somewhat defended her and back and forth, etc etc. While Dren is a lifeform and partially human. . .she is also half animal. I have trouble writing this because I feel emotionally tangled up. . .I don't want to sound inhuman. . .but. . .well. . .damn it. . .this is what this movie does. Makes you think! Makes you question things!

    Great job JKM!

    PS: I like how you and I are pretty much watching the same films at the same time. . .I like to see what we agree on and disagree on!

  2. Hi Will,

    I just posted a comment on your blog, after reding your great review of Splice.

    I agree with you that this movie is stimulating in the extreme (intellectually stimulating, I mean...I'm not condoning Brody on alien action!).

    I can't stop thinking about Splice, and what it means. I decided to not really factor in the science, though this is a science run amok film, and just look at it as a story about a twisted family dynamic.

    About a kid who is lonely, and the parents who do a really, really terrible job raising her.

    I don't know...I find Dren to be the hero, whether fully human, half-human or a third-human. She loves unconditionally her "Mom" and "Dad" and her "pet" and then is used rather nastily by her parents.

    Even the act of killing the cat, I saw as her feral equivalent of adolescent rebellion. Her Mom was using the cat as a tool to control her, and she saw through it. Not any comfort to the cat, though...

    I don't know for sure. I agree with you that this movie is deeply, truly unsettling...very strong stuff, and I think it's actually a pretty great film.

    Thanks for the comment, my friend! I enjoyed very much reading your take on it.


  3. Claudiu8:02 AM

    Hi John,

    I think you're reading too much into this movie. it's a horrible movie.

  4. Hi Claudiu,

    Thanks for commenting. Sorry to hear you did not care for Splice, or my analysis of the film. To each his own....


  5. Hi John,

    I'm sorry if I offended you and I apologize.

    It is a pleasure to read your reviews as always and I did learn a lot of things I didn't know about this movie and this genre. And I can understand why this could be appealing to you, as a professional.

    But for me, just a regular Joe, it didn't work that well. What I did not like about the movie was the way the story was told. I found it needing a lot more subtlety. And development.

    The idea of bad parenting and worse parents was used as an excuse to make a movie which had no appeal to me. If they were to... let's say... spend less time on the relation between the "parents" and Dren and instead use that as a build up to some cool, intense and thrilling ending then yes, I would have had something I could have enjoyed.

    But they did not. The ending felt like something they threw in there, just to make sure they covered all the bases, or something. Which only added to the feeling of "let's get this over with, people!" and made for really bad story telling. It had no emotion, it had no characters to speak of, it had no tension, nothing.


  6. John.

    I haven't seen this film but it plays out pretty much as I suspected.

    I do really love your analysis and breakdown at the end and I suspect it is that connection that would make the conclusion a little devastating to watch.

    I also loved your insight and perspective utilizing gene-splicing classics like The Island Of Dr. Moreau. I hadn't really thought about all of the wonderful science fiction out there that has touched on this subject for years.

    Excellent as always.

  7. Hi Claudiu,

    I'm so glad you wrote again. And thank you for your follow-up comment.

    Please, no need to worry or apologize.

    We won't all have the same taste in films -- and wouldn't it be terribly boring if we did?

    In this case, we simply have a difference of opinion.

    I do like your comment here, very much, because you elaborate specifically on the reasons why you did not like the movie. That's what's important to me: you state your case.

    I understand much better now what your problems with the film are.

    And we're not far apart on our assessment of the film's ending. I found it the least-satisfying part of Splice.

    So, no worries at all, Claudiu, and thank you for taking the time to comment and elaborate on your initial comment.

    All my best,

  8. Hi Sci Fi Fanatic,

    Thank you for the comment, buddy. Splice is very much in the tradition of Moreau and others, but here, frankly, the science is primarilya vehicle for the twisted family drama. I recommend the film, but also remember that you aren't huge on the horror, so this one may not be precisely up your alley. However, the film, in my opinion, does look very much at morality around scientific advances in the way that Charly or other films do...only with a darker bent. On those grounds, you may enjoy it. But seriously, if you watch Splice, brace yourself -- the parents do some uncomfortable and despicable things here, and I found it very uncomfortable at times.

    Thanks, my friend,

  9. This is really the best, most interesting analysis I have read on Splice. I found it really hard to put my thoughts together on this movie because I had such a primal reaction to it. Outside of the science it's just very tragic and watching Elsa "operate" on Dren and remove parts of her body seemed more horrifying to me than anything else in the movie including the rape. I thought it was pretty brilliant how it made you feel the pain of not being able to care for something properly AND the pain of not being cared for properly at the same time. A lot of horror movies concerning dysfunctional families concentrate exclusively on rage but this one seems to get that conscious disconnection is just as harmful.

  10. Kindertrauma,

    Thank you for such a great compliment in your comment. That means a lot to me; especially considering how much I love your blog and your writing as well.

    It sounds like Splice affected you strongly too. I love how you put a fine point on the movie's aesthetic: "I thought it was pretty brilliant how it made you feel the pain of not being able to care for something properly AND the pain of not being cared for properly at the same time."

    That's it exactly. The "conscious disconnection" you also bring up is really horrifying as well. I found it profoundly upsetting; in some ways more than "rage." This movie calls up a lot of unsettling feelings, and that's why I think it is so well done.

    I remember when I did an episode of The House Between called "Separated" about a dysfunctional family, and a viewer commented here on the blog that much more upsetting than the general level of physical violence in the episode was a scene in which the cruel-father figure simply upended his bowl of oatmeal, while his "family" watched his action in fear.

    I thought that was odd; but it made sense too.

    Sometimes the terror in these domestic situations arises from the anticipation of the violence; from the building up of suppressed fear and rage. The build-up, as we see in Splice, can sometimes be more effective than the release, I guess.

    I really did admire this horror movie, even if it has divided the readers here! :)

    Thanks for a great comment!


  11. Anonymous5:07 PM

    You seem to miss a trick here. Dren is conceived on a spur of the moment whim -- just as many children born into miserable lives are, by parents who do not think of the consequences of their actions. (You seem to miss that it subtly points out that parenthood should not be accidental in that sense).


Buck Rogers: "The Satyr"

"There are strange viruses here on this planet." - Cyra (Anne E. Curry) warns Buck about the dangers of Arcanus in "...