[3 June 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s known as the old bait and switch - the promise one thing but the delivery of something completely different. Carnivals used to excel at such tactics, especially the sleazier ones that would substitute medical “oddities” in jars of formaldehyde for actual sideshow freaks. Hollywood has been doing it for years - providing family films that only a brain-addled infant could love, dreaming up romantic comedies which are far from either. Genre titles seem to be the worst, however. Horror or science fiction requires a certain suspension of disbelief and when you fail to fulfill that requirement, the ideas you proffer usually go from spine-tingling to mind-numbing. But the worst crime is pretending to be something you have no intention of embracing. Nothing is more disingenuous to the fans - or the format.
Take the new fresh-from-the-film-festival-circuit favorite Splice. Co-written and directed by Vincenzo Natali (perhaps best known for the Saw-like Cube), the main premise offers envelope-pushing scientists Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) as they try to find a way to make their corporate sponsors happy. They’ve just artificially developed a profitable protein (and a new genus of beastie to supply it) and the bosses want more, more, MORE! So naturally, Clive and Elsa decide to vary from protocol and use human DNA to speed up the process. The results are a half-breed ‘horror’ nicknamed Dren (“nerd”, backwards) that’s part baby, part beast. Maturing at an accelerated rate, the mutation brings out the worst in our reluctant researchers. When the company finds out, however, things go from bad to horrifically worse.
Or do they? If you’ve seen the ads, you’ve probably pegged Splice as a suspense-filled exercise in natural payback for the typical arrogance of ‘Man playing God’. The clips offer lots of rapid cutting chaos, with a seemingly monstrous being snatching innocent victims out of mid-air and threatening our heroes with heart-stopping, quality F/X shocks. Up front, your brain starts channeling the similarly styled efforts from the past. Naturally, such amazing masterpieces as David Cronenberg’s The Fly come to the fore, as do lesser b-movie versions of the same, like Species. But unlike either of those efforts, Splice is a ruse. It doesn’t want to be a bombshell. Instead, it wants ideas to do most of the creepshow consciousness raising, relegating anything remotely resembling terror to the last five minutes of the movie - literally.
If you’re looking for an appropriate movie metaphor, the tacky 1976 Rock Hudson/Barbara Carrera vehicle Embryo would be a good place to start. In this sleazy Ralph Nelson non-entity, an unborn fetus is miraculous saved in an “artificial” womb by a doctor (Hudson) hoping to speed up the maturation process. Successful as only cinema can provide, our idyllic infant grows into a Me Decade dreamstate named Victoria. At first, our mad medico feels nothing but paternal love for his “creation”, but soon, equally accelerated libido takes over and our stars are doing the implied incest mambo. Toss in a cruel twist of fate (something to do with rapid aging and cellular instability) and you’ve got a Lifetime title three decades too early. Nothing about this retro ridiculousness is remotely scary. Take away Carrera’s then smoking hotness and you’ve got nothing more than 90 minutes of non-science nonsense.
Splice is exactly the same - EXACTLY (mandatory SPOILER warning inserted now). Clive is initially reluctant to help Elsa make a mock human being, but with her pussy-whipping determination, she gets her way and little Dren is born. At first, she’s a darling and inquisitive little thing, tapping directly into the audience’s “awww” factor while only occasionally suggesting the potential threats involved (it has a barbed tail that’s filled with venom - go figure). But eventually, Dren goes from hodgepodge to horny, her adolescent teen girl body type - and obvious puppy lust - apparently too much for our male hero to resist. During a seminal moment in the script, Clive drops trou (and any sense of Ph-Dignity) and goes to town on Dren. She-it is more than happy to oblige, writhing like a percolating porn star as her inert reproduction processes are awakened.
Now, you just know that this was the moment Natali and his helpers had aimed for. All throughout the first 50 minutes or so of Splice, Clive and Elsa are seen as sexual beings. Dren even gets an eyeful when the drained docs find enough Red Bull fueled energy to do the nasty right in front of their “daughter”. Later on, the supermodel version of the abomination (played with enigmatic excellence by French actress Delphine Chanéac) is caught with crude crayon drawings of Clive. Else chalks it up to her own horrific past as an abused child - meaning, she’s just not good mother material - and this fuels a rift between our otherwise close colleagues. It’s not long after this that one of our leads is sleeping in a hovel like room in the old family cottage, while the other is taking Dren on a hike across the Appalachian trail.
So, Splice sexualizes its creature, arguing that Clive’s decision to sleep with a six month old “it” is perfectly rational and reasonable, given the already outlandish circumstances. Even better, (SPOILER warning still in place) the movie makes another wacked out left turn when Dren spontaneously turns male, grows wings, goes on a minor killing spree, and then gives Elsa a chance to taste some forbidden freak fruit herself (otherwise known as a Beast Within bit of katy-diddling rape). With a few bodies strewn about and a company desperate for this special DNA, we wind up with a pregnancy, a massive pay-out, and a sentiment that seems to suggest that it’s alright to mimic the Almighty just as long as you let your bastardized atrocity do it to you, old school style. So much for the first 45 minutes as a moral values debate.
With Geek Nation (and several mainstream critics) going Lady GaGa over this goop, it’s interesting to see the many inappropriate parallels being drawn. Several want to seat Natali right next to the guy who made Seth Brundle into a compelling, compassionate monster. But Splice is subpar Cronenberg at best, all giggling suggestion without full bore genital jerryrigging. This is the man who made typewriters look like vaginas in Naked Lunch. Would he really keep Dren so demure? Similarly, there’s no splatter here, no necessary life lessons in instinctual vivisection. Our beastie is raised to be a good “girl”. Even the occasional attack is seen as misguided. When it goes ‘guy’ however, the vein juice starts to flow, albeit sparingly. But it’s way too little far too late into the process. Like Embryo, which labeled itself a “thriller”, there was more focus on the friskiness than on the standard genre mandates. Splice plays the same game, trading a sense of schlock for a more refined ridiculousness.
Even with its excellent performances, brilliant F/X, and desire to be more about ethics than the eerie, Splice still wants to straddle the categorical fence - and falls off one too many times. If you want to be scary (with a little human/horror cross-pollination), no problem. Just don’t pull punches along the way. If you want to wear Cronenberg’s crown - or at the very least, try it on - you have to match his madness, not attempt to suggest it subtlety. In the end, what’s clear is that Splice never intended to be a balls-out frightmare or gratuitous bit of bizarro interspecies exploitation. Instead, it hopes that a bevy of “Bravos” plus an ad campaign that hides the truth will trick the fanbase. Sadly, it probably will. At its core is a really interesting idea. Too bad then that Splice decided to go for scandal instead of scares. By doing so, it becomes nothing more than a horror huckster.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/126454-gene-fool/