Traditional Family Values: Splice

FILM, Film Festivals

The director of ‘Cube’ and ‘Cypher’ indulges his jones for the mad scientist movie.

When is it a good idea to just go ahead and try something new—something risky—without any sense of the possible consequences? Not often, right? And damn well never in any kind of thriller/horror genre piece—sci-fi or otherwise. The archetypically moronic decision required to set up Cube director Vincenzo Natali’s latest pseudo-science, alt-pop horror Splice, is for the two protagonists to ignore directives to slow down their gene splicing experimentation, instead bulldozing onwards with an attempt to splice human and animal genes… because, you know, they could discover a cure for cancer. This monumental, plot-necessary cock-up is made by faux-geek geneticist super-couple Elsa (Sarah Polley) and her bullied partner Clive (Adrien Brody), who are presented as ‘rock star’ scientists spoiled by an ongoing license to do as they please. What starts off as a secretive ‘let’s just see if we can do it’ experiment turns into a fulltime parenting assignment involving the birth of a mutant ‘child’ coined ‘Dren’ (NERD backwards—the geek-chic initials of their research unit), who enters the world looking akin to an armless baby Velociraptor, and quickly evolves into something resembling a human-meets-angel-demon conception.

Sporting plot and character developments that would send Freud into ecstatic spasms, Natali, through this most dysfunctional of family units, again faces down some of the big follies inherent in the human species. Ethical quandaries abound; topics such as genetic manipulation, eugenics, nature-vs-nurture, private corporate funding of research, treatment of the ‘other’, and sexual power/politics are broached. Unfortunately most of these are given, at best, a cursory look as the demands of action/horror set pieces get attended to. Making for an oddly attractive leading pair—neither Brody nor Polley are what you’d call classic heartthrobs—both the characters of Elsa and Clive fail to engender much empathy. (A similar problem to have struck Tilda Swinton vehicle I Am Love.) Polley, in particular, struggles to deliver the kind of warmth required to make her character alterations as felt as they should be. In contrast, French actress Delphine Chanéac displays admirable range as Dren, the emotionally underdeveloped personification of her creators’ relationship dysfunctions. Possibly the best dramatic ‘turn’ in Splice, however, belongs to the ironically monikered ‘Fred’ and ‘Ginger’, whose screen time culminates in a grotesquely comic sequence, bizarrely upstaging our actual protagonists.

Much of the twisting and turning in the narrative—though cleverly written—is pure shock value. Don’t expect the raw cerebral appeal of Cube. Whereas the latter enthralling production was all tightly ratcheted psychological tension pushing into inevitable philosophical reflection—likely aided by its constrained budget/setting—Splice suffers from the distraction of a bigger budget pushing viewer attention onto its greater visual spectacle. And visually, Splice impresses, attaining the kind of rich and mature imagery that often evades similar genre films. Cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata successfully brings to bear his diverse, if limited, experience—fresh off the back of Jean-Pieree Jeunet’s Micmacs by way of Olivier Dahan’s stunner La Vie En Rose—to capture believably fantastical set pieces with a mildly gothic undertone, somewhere between the visual tenor of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.

Certainly an entertaining film, with barely a dull moment and many ideas to mull over, Splice may ultimately fall afoul of its own confused positioning: too risqué for the mass market, not quite smart enough for art house appeal, and not raw enough to achieve cult status.

Dir. Vincenzo Natali
Canada/France, 2009; 100 minutes
Featuring: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chanéac, David Hewlett, Brandon McGibbon, Simona Maïcanescu.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Jacob Powell has been contributing to The Lumière Reader since 2005. He writes freelance on cinema and other topics both online and occasionally in print. He also works as an Auckland-based university librarian specialising in digital AV media and research collections.