Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Who doesn't want to be debased every now and again?" - Watching Splice

I wrote previously that I was looking forward to seeing Vincenzo Natali's Splice, but had some significant apprehensions about the film. I really enjoyed Natali's Cube and I'm curious about his upcoming adaptation of William Gibson's Neuromancer, but the marketing for Splice made me concerned it would take a frustratingly conservative stance on scientific experimentation. Having seen the movie I'm happy to report that those fears were completely unfounded, Splice was not a terrible, anti-science propaganda piece.

Instead it was just an astoundingly stupid and uncomfortable mess of a horror film.

Spoilers ahead.

Splice is ostensibly a sci-fi film, but I'm hesitant to call it that since the scientific aspects of the plot peter out about a third of the way through. The story is about two hot-shot geneticists (Adrien Brody's Clive and Sarah Polley's Elsa) who use a mixture of human and animal DNA to create a new life form they name Dren. Throughout the initial stages of their experiment the relative morality of human cloning is discussed, or at least mentioned in passing. One could argue that Splice effectively represents multiple sides on the issue by having Clive and Elsa debate it amongst themselves and with an evil corporate big-wig. Honestly though, the science and politics just aren't a real focus beyond their immediate roles in the plot. The movie is more about parenthood, if anything, and once Dren is born the focus becomes Clive and Elsa's relationship with it rather than cloning. That and creeping the fuck out of the audience.

Splice pointedly eschews rhyme or reason in a sustained effort to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible. There are numerous bizarre plot points with flimsy justifications at best. For example, Clive lets Dren curiously watch as he and Elsa have terrible, awkward sex. Apparently he's attracted to the creature because it's made using Elsa's DNA, or something? There’s also nothing in the way of character development or consistency. Elsa actually does a complete 180 personality-wise, changing from a strong, independent woman to a possessive crazy-mommy cliché. All of this results in an amorphous narrative in which the filmmakers depict weird, horrible things just to make the audience squirm. Clive decides he doesn't want to murder Dren anymore and sleeps with it instead. Sequences like this are ridiculous and don't make much sense but are extremely uncomfortable to watch, and that seems to be their primary goal.

So much of what happens in Splice is infuriatingly stupid and illogical, but it might actually be funny if the movie didn't take itself so damn seriously most of the time. The atmosphere is generally dour and tense but every now and again there are sudden winks at the camera that underscore how ludicrous the plot actually is. For example, after Clive gets caught having sex with Dren there's a priceless deadpan shot of Elsa running away from her deranged boyfriend. Such moments are clearly meant to amuse, but Splice is so generally insane that these sequences aren't always immediately discernible from ones that are just inherently ridiculous. It becomes hard to tell whether you're laughing with Splice or at it. The movie feels indecisively split between being truly horrific and comically absurd, and the result is a disconcerting viewing experience that invites far too much eye rolling.

Speaking of things that are irritating, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Splice's convoluted and misogynistic gender politics. As I mentioned earlier, Elsa is introduced as a highly-intelligent, well-balanced person who is unapologetic in her resistance to conform to gender stereotypes. But as soon as she sees Dren she becomes an increasingly unhinged control-freak, and the switch is so sudden and all-encompassing that it completely undermines her initial characterization. Splice portrays the maternal instinct like it's an inevitable mental disorder that uniformly overrides personality and logic. No matter how brilliant and ambitious they might be, each and every woman is a baby-making time-bomb just waiting to go off.  

Additionally you may have noticed that I keep referring to Dren as an 'it' instead of identifying the creature's sex. This is because one of the film's major plot points is that cloned animals are apparently prone to sudden gender reversing rebirths (wow). While this premise opens the door for a progressive depiction of fluid gender subjectivity, Splice instead resorts to traditional differentiators in its polarized portrayal(s) of Dren. As a female the creature is seductively demure but vaguely threatening, and looks like it'll kill Clive praying-mantis style at the climax of their intercourse until Elsa interrupts. After its transformation into a male Dren becomes a predictably aggressive monster, killing everything in sight and raping Elsa. Yeesh. Splice's treatment of gender stands as its greatest failure, as the promising concept is wasted on cliché depictions of a male-female binary.

Splice is not a good movie. It's got an interesting concept and is at times amusing, but more often than not it's frustrating and uncomfortable to watch. If you insist on seeing it then don't go in expecting any sort of intelligent thought on gender or scientific advancement. This film is campy horror, and not even good campy horror at that. You're better off seeing Drag Me To Hell. Or Alien. Or Species. Or anything

For further evidence check out some great reviews over at The Daily Protagitron or Danny Isn't Here, Mrs. Torrence


  1. not a good movie but a hilarious and awesome experience to watch it.

  2. you keep saying that it made you "uncomfortable," but i think that might just be your innate discomfort with birth coming through.

    can't speak to marty's experience (we saw it together), but i never felt uncomfortable. i was too busy cracking up at the complete absurdity of this crappy film.

    for me, discomfort at the cinema is something i experience when it feels as though i could potentially find myself in a similar situation, either physically or ethically. if you know anything about biology whatsoever, splice was so farcical that i couldn't even remotely imagine its real world implications. when it comes to body horror, there's only one cronenberg.

    otherwise, great review!

  3. I mentioned this to you. but the movie definitely made me feel uncomfortable. Especially the part when Adrien Brody has sex with Dren. At the point she seemed more like a daughter to him so that's why I was creeped out and then all of a sudden her wings sprouted out and I remembered there was more than one reason to be disturbed by that scene.

    A lot of what you've said about the movie makes sense and I agree, I just am not sure I agree with your critique of the representation of gender. At first I felt like I really should have been annoyed at the fact that the males were violent (both the blobby things and Dren) and at how motherhood is betrayed. But I really wasn't. The blobs were from animal (or something) DNA and most animals are territorial and attack the same gender, so it makes sense that two male blobby things in an enclosed space would attack each other (amount of gore was ridiculous and kind of hilarious/disturbing at the same time). I didn't see it as men=violent and women=seductresses (although I can also understand why people would argue it that way).

    With Dren I also had a little bit of a problem about how they treated gender but I also feel it can be explained. As a girl she was raised as Sarah Polley's daughter and felt loved by both so there was no threat and no need to be violent. When Polley catches Dren with Brody she ties her down, strips her, and then essentially mutilates Dren's body. After that Dren realizes that the two pose a threat to her life and it happens to coincide around the time she dies/transforms. On top of that she is in some ways buried alive. I'd be a little pissed too - male or female. After that when she comes back as male Dren, he wakes up angry and wanting revenge. I didn't see it as he is violent because he is male. I'm not entirely sure what to say about the rape scene but it was a horrible revenge scene in which Polley had removed it's phallus/tail (not necessarily a penis, but symbolic of one) and then he returns to attack Polley with it. I don't mean to say it's justified or anything like that - it was still brutal to watch - and this is the part that I came closest to being angry about gender portrayals, but it still didn't hit me as male=violent. If Dren had survived as a female a similar revenge scene could have still occured.

    It is unfortunate how the film portrayed transitioning genders but I also feel the entire context needs to be taken into consideration. I still don't see it as meaning transitioning (genders) as something horrible on its's more just something that happens to occur in this film during horrible moments/timing. I also realize that it can be interpreted different ways and how one could argue that it is simply portraying transitioning as something violent and evil which is obviously a problem.