“Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms; creating or implanting embryos for experiments; creating human-animal hybrids; and buying, selling or patenting human embryos.”
-George W. Bush
We all heard it, or at least heard about it – the moment when the President of the United States, perhaps after watching Mansquito on the Sci-Fi Channel, stood before Congress for a Constitutionally-mandated State of the Union and demanded that they ban the creation of human-animal hybrids. We laughed, or at least chuckled a bit. Most of us knew about Dolly, the cloned sheep. A few of us might’ve seen the mouse with a mock human ear on its back. But human-animal hybrids? Did the President honestly expect us to believe that there’s a lab somewhere diligently toiling to build its very own centaur?
From Cube director Vincenzo Natali comes Splice, a provocative and disturbing drama that explores that very possibility. The film stars Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley as Clive and Elsa, a pair of rockstar geneticists working to synthesize a miraculous, disease-fighting protein by splicing together DNA from a variety of different animals. The lab’s aesthetic is very pop-sci… Think “CSI” with snazzier wardrobe – I daresay Adrian Brody sports a different novelty geek tee in every scene. The two scientists are also romantically involved, which makes their almost giddy pursuit of new life that much more poignant. Their first several creations are failures, pickling grotesquely in jars next to celebratory champagne bottles with the name of each prospective bioengineered couple – “Adam and Eve”, “Sid and Nancy”, and the latest – the still-living “Fred and Ginger”. Appropriately, these two look like a pair of huge, malformed guinea pigs. With no faces and third-degree burns. They’re monstrous to behold, and serve quite effectively to remind the viewer that it took millions of years of evolution to make us look as sexy as we do now, and a bit of random DNA splicing is likely to end up lacking in the aesthetic department.
With this in mind, it makes sense that Clive and Elsa would go behind the backs of their bosses to incorporate human DNA into the mix, but it’s still a bit of a cinematic conceit that the resulting creature looks much less horrifying than Fred and Ginger. Dren, as she comes to be called [Nerd spelled backwards], looks more or less human from the torso up, but sports double-jointed legs, feet that are equal parts monkey and kangaroo, and a rather ominous looking tail (Didn’t Chekhov say something about a huge, venomous spike in the first act?).
The creature design and visual effects are just superb. Much like the creatures of Will Wright’s “Spore”, Dren was is clearly designed to be viewed in stages; to this end, we have cinematic conceit #2… Her aging is rapidly accelerated. After a series of CG quasi-fetuses, Dren is played by a human child with various practical and CG tweaks. As an adult, she is played to great effect by French actress/model Delphine Chanéac. For a performance in which she never utters human speech, Chanéac makes Dren into at least a somewhat legitimate “character”. But she’s also bald, she never blinks, her head darts around like a bird, and she moves with an animalistic fluidity and speed. Like the residents of the uncanny valley, Dren seems irrevocably human, and yet even when her animal parts aren’t visible, she just seems…wrong.
Consequently, Elsa’s interaction with Dren is pretty jarring at first. She seems to forms a maternal bond almost immediately, to Clive’s chagrin. But while her relationship with Dren developed mostly organically, Elsa didn’t completely work for me as a character… She starts off as the moral “Eve” of the situation, acting as the impetus behind the creation of the beast and then dragging Clive along for the ride, but as the film goes on, her history and motivations get a bit muddled (particularly by the rushed introduction of the character’s less than healthy upbringing). In spite of these minor difficulties, Polley gives a fantastic performance, the chemistry between her and Brody is undeniable. They are completely believable together as both a romantic couple and quasi-parents (although this may be the most striking example yet of why a couple shouldn’t work together!).
At first, Elsa and Clive seem almost high on life (which seems plausible enough for cutting edge geneticists), but their boldness and arrogance is thoroughly smacked down as the film goes on. We are run through a myriad of moral and ethical questions regarding the creation and upbringing of a human-animal hybrid. There were the ones I expected – Do you treat it like a human or an animal? Like a pet or a research subject? – and a few others I frankly never would’ve imagined*. There was one question that I would have liked to see more of – what do you teach a creature with near-human intelligence? We see a bit of this when Dren is a child, but due to her rapid aging and character changes, this question is too hastily abandoned. Nonetheless, Splice is quite impressive as a bioethical thought experiment, perhaps joining the ranks alongside (but not quite eclipsing) Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. And like that film, it tackles material that will probably no longer be science fiction in a decade or two.
Splice also reminded me of Jurassic Park, reiterating that film’s ethos of “life will find a way”. The only problem with the film’s portrayal is that in the case of a designer organism, it’s not entirely clear – either to us or the organism itself – what exactly it’s finding a way to do. It doesn’t fit in with the natural order, and its behavior (and relationship with other creatures) is governed largely by overlapping and often contradictory tidbits of chemical instinct. I may be giving Splice too much credit, but this naturalistic chaos may well be the point the film is trying to make. And like Jurassic Park before it, the characters certainly pay a believable price for their hubris.
In its marketing, Splice looks more or less like a typical monster flick, although only about 10% of it is what I would really call creature-horror. Nonetheless, Vincenzo Natali’s direction throughout the film ably plays on monster movie conventions to add additional stakes (and a few brilliant moments of dark comedy) to what might otherwise be an overwrought morality play. Splice may well be one of my favorite films of this year, but it is also one of the most visceral and shocking things I’ve ever seen, and it’s definitely not for everyone. But Natali has once again proven himself a thoughtful and provocative sci-fi writer/director. Splice may not explore every possibility of its audacious premise, but it is still a brilliant and haunting achievement.
FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10