In the movies, horror and science fiction go hand in hand—or maybe just horror and science.
Think Gattaca, Serenity, even I Am Legend with its cancer-curing, zombie-creating virus. The message tends to be: Don’t mess with Mother Nature. And while Will Smith makes a pretty badass scientist trying to save humanity, in a lot (dare I say most?) of these cinematic case studies, the labcoat is code for creepy.
Splice seems pretty conventional in that way. Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are the power couple of genetic engineering. Getting the cover of Wired in the first five minutes of the film, they run a pharmaceutical lab called N.E.R.D. (Nucleic Exchange Research and Development—awesome acronym, right?) and blast rock music while synthesizing proteins. Not to mention their boss introduces them at a major research conference as “Splicemasters extraordinaire”—which sounds like a bad DJ name, but ties in pretty well with Clive’s tricked-out labcoat (see above).
In any case, Elsa and Clive are the best in the field, and determined to go further than anyone else—quoth Dr. Kast: “If we don’t use human DNA, someone else will.”
That’s right, human cloning. Well… not exactly.
I’m not sure exactly what it is about genetic engineering that gives people the heebie jeebies. And I’m not just talking the Right to Life, tape-over-the-mouth-at-rallies set—there’s simply something shiver-inducing about anemic nerds snapping on blue latex gloves in a laboratory (pronunciation: luh-BOR-uh-tor-ee).
Maybe it’s the fact that a movie like Splice might not be science fiction for long—heck, we cloned Dolly in 1996. For all we know, someone decanted an amphibious, winged human hybrid with a spiky tail even as you sat in the theater and lost your lunch. Or maybe not. But whoever wins the stem cell debate, there’s one thing I’m convinced of: eventually, whatever can be done, will be done.
And here’s the twist: I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. In fact, I’m not sure that the Splice subtext says it’s a bad thing either.
Spoilers ahead; if you haven’t seen it and want to, here’s my review in a nutshell– Splice gets five stars for creepiness, five stars for moral conundrums, and five stars for being flat-our bizarre. I loved it.
For me, the creepiest thing about the movie wasn’t the Clive-Dren sex scene, nor even the Dren-Elsa rape scene—it was Elsa, in the barn, with a tape recorder.
But let’s back up.
While I was away in Greece, my dear Charlie and her boyfriend drove out to Edwards Cinema in Brea to see Splice. Charlie likes scary movies—even if The Ring did turn her into a skittish mess for about six months of 2002. Doubtless, they went in expecting something along the lines of Pan’s Labyrinth in terms of atmosphere and creepiness level (Splice was produced, after all, by the twisted mind of Guillermo del Toro himself, and there’s not much more disturbing than Goya’s “dark paintings”). According to Charlie, they slunk out absolutely disgusted, asking themselves exactly what Brody/Clive exclaims at the climax of the film: “What the fuck is going on?”
When I came home, Charlie discouraged me from seeing it, telling me I’d be “embarrassed” if I did. I, having no shame and having promised myself to be a faithful follower of all disturbing science fiction, whatever the format or genre, didn’t listen to her. Of course, because she wouldn’t come to the theater with me, I had to watch the movie on Watch-Movies on my laptop, which was well enough. I’ve always thought Top Ramen’s a much better movie snack than popcorn.
And so the buffering ended, and I hit play.
Splice started off conventionally, with the conventionally self-confident scientist couple saying things like “What’s the point if you can’t publish?” and “Are you telling me you don’t need to know?” and best of all, “If God doesn’t want us to explore his domain, why would he give us the map?” Clive shares a “double-helix high five” with his brother, and Elsa indirectly compares herself to God by calling Fred and Ginger (her first new species, two slug-like masses of puckered white flesh) “Adam and Eve.” Nothing terribly unexpected.
Things start to get weird during what I call the “birth scene”—Dren’s dramatic entrance into the human world. Having developed from a baby blastocyst to a real monster in a much shorter amount of time than either Clive or Elsa anticipated, little Dren (Nerd backwards, btw) has to be blasted out of her amniotic tank. Elsa, trying to feel for the creature through an opening in the decanter, gets her arm stuck—stuck as in stabbed—by the fetus’s noodly appendange. Stabbed repeatedly as Clive smashes the tank, Elsa pants and screams and cries out throughout the entire birth scene. Symbolism, much?
Clive and Elsa’s journey into parenthood doesn’t stop there—actually, besides the fact that their baby has strange double-jointed legs, a seam down the top of her head, and a fencing foil for a tail, raising Dren seems eerily familiar. Always crying, Dren has a fit over her gooey green meals of “bean curd, roughage, and starch,” craving instead, as the scientists note, “high-sucrose foodstuffs.” In English: Dren won’t eat her vegetables, but she sure likes sugar.
And to Elsa, Dren can do no wrong. In a moment of pure parental adoration, she suggests revealing Dren’s existence to the scientific world (Clive, understandably, is horrified). Elsa’s only argument? “Do you think they could really look at this face and see anything less than a miracle?” It’s the proverbial face only a mother could love.
Elsa gives Dren her old Barbie to sleep with, teaches her how to put on make-up, and tries—it seems—to be the mother she never had. We get hints throughout the movie that Elsa didn’t have the most idyllic family life. Not only did she live on a creepy farm in the woods, she had a monster for a mother. What exactly her mother did is never explained (which bothers Clive as much as it does me), but as Elsa says: “If you could understand crazy, it wouldn’t be crazy.”
Which begs the question—is Elsa crazy?
Bizarre as it may seem to raise a hybrid baby made from your own DNA (another thing Clive didn’t know until very late, but which the audience could guess just from previews), Elsa was a good mom who brought out the human side in Dren—the girl who could disembowel a rabbit in the woods upon arrival at the farm but who, after playing dress-up with an old tiara of Elsa’s and looking at an old family picture of mom, can snuggle up with a kitty in the barn. It says something about nature and nurture.
But about ninety minutes in, Elsa-as-mom snaps—or rather, Elsa turns into her own mother (a woman’s tragedy, as Oscar Wilde would say). After an argument with Clive in which the still-wary dad shouts “When did you stop being a fucking scientist?” Elsa pulls out the labcoat.
Dren is back to “Subject H50,” strapped on a metal table and discussed, once more, like an experiment. This, to me, is the most chilling scene—an indictment of human psychology, not Dren’s.
“Physically, H50 has evolved well,” Elsa says into a tape recorder, flat and clinical. “However, recent violence behavior suggests dangerous psychological developments.” The problem, Dr. Kast postulates, is “caused by a disproportionate species identification.” In other words—Dren thinks she’s human, and she’s not.
Or maybe it’s Elsa having the dangerous psychological turnaround—she seems to have taken Clive’s question to heart… or brain, I guess. When did she stop being a scientist? My guess is, when she became a mother (that’s the answer to everything, right Jacob?) And to remedy the problem—caused by Elsa’s disproportionate identification of Dren with the human species—Dr. Kast disowns her daughter. Literally, she strips the human from Dren—wiping the make-up off her face, snapping the necklace off her neck, and cutting the dress off her shivering body. And then, with a sinister syringe squirt and scalpel, she cuts the stinger and venomous glands out of Dren’s tail.
But Elsa’s not the only slightly disturbed member of the cast. Clive, after some serious misgivings (shoor, he tried to drown Dren thirty minutes in), is the first to tell Dren that they need her, that they love her. He is the subject of her first crayon sketches, and he is the one to introduce Dren to music. Of course, things get creepy fast when he teaches her to dance in the barn, and sees Elsa in the shape of her lips and curve of her neck.
To make brief a disturbing climax (oh god, I really didn’t want that to be a pun):
Elsa walks in on Dren and Clive… doing it; Elsa freaks out; the Watch-Movies recorded audience laughs until some girl shouts “Shut up!”; Clive absolves himself by claiming that “We changed the rules”; Dren gets a fever and dies, and the grieving parents bury her; the N.E.R.D. boss figures out what’s going on back on the farm and demands to see Dren; he can, because it turns out she’s not dead—she just underwent a gender-switching metamorphosis. Man-Dren rapes Elsa; Man-Dren kills Clive; Elsa kills Dren. It’s like a Shakespearean tragedy. Kind of.
And in the end, Elsa gets what she wants: a baby. Too bad she had it with her clone instead of Adrien Brody.
As the credits rolled, I was stunned—but not embarrassed like Charlie had promised. Splice was disturbing, sure, but not outrageous, and there’s an interesting subtext.
“Was this ever about science?” Clive demands of Elsa after realizing that Dren isn’t just a clone—it’s Elsa’s clone. To answer his question, one would think not—Elsa had some mommy issues and passed them on to the next generation, and Clive’s libido is going places nobody wants to see. In fact, the movie itself really isn’t about science about all, or the dangers of a new creation.
Like in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the “creature” is not inherently destructive or evil. Frankenstein, which has become a byword for a monster, is the name of the doctor—who neglects to raise the child he made.
It’s all about the creators. But really—what parent doesn’t mess up their kids?