Splice is a frustratingly schizophrenic movie. On the one hand, it wants to be a character study of scientists who become emotionally involved with their experiment. On the other hand it wants to be a typical horror/thriller movie. Neither is done particularly well, but even if they had been the filmmakers never reconcile the competing strains and they undermine each other making this picture a boring, illogical, and trying mess.
Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley play Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast, romantically involved scientists who are working on splicing the genes of various species to create new ones for a pharmaceutical company. They vaguely claim to be creating these new life forms for the purpose of creating new drugs, but there appears to be very little effort toward that end. They both think that using human genes is the logical next step in their work, but the company forbids it. Mostly at the incessant goading of Elsa, they decide to move ahead anyway keeping their experiment secret. (This is one of the rare movies that inspired my sympathy for a pharma company.) What they create is an odd part human, kangaroo, frog, cockatoo, squirrel, and who knows what else (the movie is oddly vague on what they used because we’re supposed to be surprised at some developments at the end … I guess). Clive wants to destroy the specimen early on, but he doesn’t have the guts to stand up to Elsa’s domineering personality. She grows attached and names her Dren. She coos over her and treats her like a substitute child rather than an experiment. As Dren gets older, Clive’s repulsion cools and she is essentially adopted as their child. From then on this movie tries to be a character study of two people and how the existence of Dren becomes a symbol of their own dysfunctional lives and relationship.
This is the one thing the film did well. The characters of Elsa and Clive were believable and fairly well flushed out. She is an emotionally scarred woman, terrified of a life without control. Clive, on the other hand, has no ability to stand up to her or challenge her control, simply to maintain peace. That is an interesting and all too real dynamic in some relationships, though not one I found compelling enough to carry an entire picture. Their decisions are so stupid, both as scientists and people, that it was hard to take any of it seriously. I wondered “what if?” many times and whenever a question was answered, it came as a complete surprise to the two supposedly accomplished scientists on screen. (Like what happens when she reaches puberty? This is something they – again two brilliant scientists – didn’t even bother to consider.)
It is amazing how little science is in this movie. They never explain what it is they are doing – some ambiguous promises of proteins or something to create new drugs. But after Dren is created, they don’t do much research in that direction. Elsa spends all her time watching Dren’s behavior and testing her intelligence. I’m not a scientist, but I don’t think behavior and intelligence will have much to do with her drug producing capabilities. I felt that if they were going to make a movie this boring, why not toss out the junk science and include actual scientific discussions about what they are doing and what they are hoping to do? They can’t have excluded this because they thought it might slow the movie down; it’s already a slow movie. Why not teach us something, give us some insight, kindle our imaginations about the possibilities and limitations of science, rather than just have the trendiest and best dressed scientists I have ever seen juggle vials and stare at computer screens?
And why not actually deal with the ethical considerations of this kind of experimentation? The movie pretends to deal with biochemical moral dilemmas, but it doesn’t take it seriously. Director Vincenzo Natali prefers to use the moral questions as fodder for pseudo-psycho babble and a typical Hollywood (or Toronto, I guess, since it’s a Canadian film) horror climaxes. Mary Shelley would recognize the subject matter, but I suspect she would be perplexed by how little time is spent discussing the pros and cons of making Dren. Where are the strong contrary voices that could have been raised? Anyone who meekly suggests Elsa is wrong to do this is dismissed as a rigid moralist or a timid scientist. Shelley dealt with this same issue much more maturely and seriously back in 1818. What a difference 200 years makes.
Another weakness of the picture is the portrayal of Dren as an adult. Natali was ambivalent about what we should feel about her. He didn’t have the courage to let the audience get too close to her or identify with her. If he had allowed intimacy to develop with her that would have been daring and the end would have potentially been much more challenging. They don’t have the guts to give her a soul (the word my boyfriend supplied after we saw the picture and I wasn’t able to put my finger on my problem with her.) Delphine Chanéac plays her as though she is a really smart pet, but a pet anyone with half a brain would be repulsed by. Her performance is so over the top and cloying that we can’t relate to her chirps and clicks, or her jerky movements. Also, we’re constantly reminded that we shouldn’t form any kind of bond with her because she is dangerous. (Her tail has a venom-tipped point.) Natali and Chanéac turned Dren into a curiosity rather than a being with a soul. Think back to Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. He may have looked monstrous, but the audience knew he wasn’t truly a monster. The knowledge that he had a soul, appreciated beauty, and craved companionship made the end so much more tragic. Johnny Depp was able to do something similar as Edward Scissorhands. The makers of Splice didn’t have the courage or ability to do the same with Dren which undermined the entire conceit of the movie.
That, of course, is the problem. Just what is the conceit of the movie? I was never sure what the point was or who I was supposed to be pulling for. Everyone was so gutless, stupid and/or rotten. Furthermore, no matter how well drawn the characters are, the end is so predictable and formulaic that it undercuts anything different the filmmakers might have been trying to do earlier in the film. Very little works here and I was ready to leave 40 or 45 minutes in, but I toughed it out. Unfortunately I wasn’t rewarded for my resilience.