Doesn’t Stick the Landing.
Vincenzo Natali’s Splice was a great film. It made me think, it made me uncomfortable with certain assumptions, and then it tore those assumptions asunder. It is not a “horror movie,” so much as it is a movie about horror, about ethics and responsibility, and about the things we become when we confront the Other, and it handles the complexity of these questions extremely well. Like I said: a great film. Right up until the last ten minutes.
Synopsis: Two bioengineers named Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) are a small, independent research outfit working for a fairly large biotech firm, making crazy breakthroughs in the creation of hybridised artificial life and medicinal science. Through their work, they create two iterations of a completely new kind of chimeric life form from many animals with known medicinal traits. Their plan is to use the chemicals these creatures create in their bodies to treat everything from degenerative eyesight to cancer. When they announce their breakthrough to their big bosses, they also break the news: they’re ready for human splicing. The bosses tell them that they’re very proud, and they’ve all done great work, but that now it’s time to make some cash. No more gene splicing shenanigans for these two–now it’s time to hunker down and synthesize the proteins that have such wonderful properties. But Elsa and Clive are scientists, dammit–and there’s so much more that can be done!
Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody do great work, even though I thought, at first, that they were trying to make Elsa the unsympathetic terror, no matter the circumstances. First she’s the uncaring scientist who goes too far. Then she’s the crazy over-attached mother figure. Then she’s the jealous Elektral (counterpart to Oedipal; it’s a word now) mother figure. Then she’s the victim-who-brought-it-on-herself. Then she’s the uncaring scientist…again. No matter what the subject under discussion, she is on the wrong side of it, and that bothered me, as it seemed extremely gender-biased. Then I realised that there was no way this could have been unintentional; Elsa is simply too often the “bad guy,” even in ways contradictory to previous instances of her being the “bad guy.”
Consider then, our Clive, Elsa’s partner and lover. You would think, if there is a dynamic to be had here, then it would obviously place Clive in opposition to Elsa, and you’d be wrong about that. It’s subtle, so you have to be careful, but Clive is weak-willed, terrified of anything other than a “Normal” life, not wanting to do anything other than follow the established path of progress in his chosen community. “What’s the Point,” he opines at one crucial stage, “if you can’t publish?” He is over-reactionary and cowardly, and always too little, too late. He does not commit to anything but his hope for a “Normal life,” yet allows himself to be herded in any direction, at any time. This is also completely intentional.
Elsa and Clive are the two windows we are given into the worst of humanity. The reckless, the irresponsible, the scared, the obsessive, the jealous, and the hateful. These are the absolute worst people to bring up an animal/human hybrid, because they haven’t even figured out how to accurately communicate with each other, let alone a whole new species. They are doomed to get it wrong. And that’s part one of my problem here: too much unsubtle moralising about how “man is not meant to tamper with nature’s” blah blah blah. And by “too much,” I, of course, mean “any at all.” The question we should be addressing here, and which Splice seems to have set out to tackle, is not “should we” or “are we ready,” but rather, “Why Aren’t We Ready?” Specifically, what is it about us that makes us such unfit custodians or creators? This film had the potential to be a distinctly… I don’t want to say “anti-human,” but definitely a film that ran counter to the kind of unthinking and destructive base drives that have marked the majority of human history.
In her rundown of the film, CaitlÃn R Kiernan noted that the true failing of Victor von Frankenstein was not to “meddle in gods affairs,” as is so often misapprehended, but rather to be a terrible parent. He brings something to life, and then, instead of rearing it, caring for it, seeking to understand it…he treats it like a thing, a monster, and, in the end, it rightly lashes out and destroys him. I’ll expound on this in a bit, but, basically, this is the lesson Shelley tried to teach us, and this lesson definitely informs Splice. In the vast majority of the movie, we’re given a clear picture that the sociopathic parental actions of these two people are the direct cause for everything that their creation, “Dren” (Abigail Chu then Delphine ChanÃ©ac), does “wrong.”
They keep her locked away, they give her vastly conflicting signals about their feelings toward her, they don’t engage her burgeoning intelligence, they don’t teach her about the nature of sex and death, they try to kill her. For gods’ sakes, they don’t even recognise a primary feature of her biology, in that her systems go into major, seemingly catastrophic metabolic arrest, just before a metamorphosis. All that being said, she is understandably confused by these people, and she lashes out at sources of pain and latches onto any small glimmer of love. Dren is vastly intelligent, but also deeply alien, and her socialisation is something to which Elsa and Clive should have paid close attention. It would have saved them a lot of trouble down the line.
The next part has a big spoiler, so you may want to stop reading.
Still here? Okay, so one major part of the film are “Fred” and “Ginger,” two examples of the previously mentioned new chimeric life-form, created by Elsa and Clive as a part of their bioengineering research. They’re geniuses and they create two things that produce all kinds of wonderful chemical compounds that will revolutionise medicine. When they decide to make Dren, they use this same initial combination of animals, plus the requisite human DNA (by the way, huge non-shocker: it’s Elsa’s DNA). Hooray, genius. The problem is, eventually they’re so busy trying and failing to deal with Dren that they miss something crucial about Ginger: her estrogen and progesterone levels have begun to drop dramatically. Fast forward to several days later, and the big biotech conference presentation of the reintroduction of Fred and Ginger to one another. They kill each other. Ginger is now male, and saw Fred as a threat. To what? Who knows…but they’re both dead now, brother. Do we see foreshadowing? Yeah, we do.
And here we come to my central problem with the story being told in this film. When Dren is female, we have in her an intelligent, engaging, learning protagonist. She plays games and tries to learn and wants to explore the world and feel love and protect the things she cares about. It is clear, in these moments, that the humans are the monsters in this film, and their monstrousness, projected outward and absorbed by Dren as “normal behaviour,” is what causes the majority of their problems. But then, in the final ten to fifteen minutes of this movie, Dren becomes male and, suddenly, we’re in a “horror movie.” Dren now lacks all interiority or motivation and is, ultimately, just the Scary Thing In The Woodsâ„¢. This leads to ontological, psychological, and physical terror, of the most visceral calibre, but it removes the sense of intelligence from Dren, and makes (the now) him the deeply unsympathetic Oedipal monster.
Yeah, you read that right.
Perhaps this was intentional. Maybe Natali’s point, here, was to show us that, no matter how much we humanise these creations, they are more animal than human, or maybe it’s a statement on the gendered nature of different kinds of horror. But that didn’t seem to be where he was going with this. There is a definite tonal shift in the final reel, prior to which the director seemed to be making a clear(-ish) point about human nature, and asking us to seriously question why we don’t learn from our mistakes, and why we don’t try to make this all work out better than in the science fiction pictures. To be fair, I saw some things coming, a long way off (Elsa’s using her own DNA, the nature of Dren’s metamorphoses), but other than that, it seemed like Natali was really able to stay away from what have become two of my most hated SF/F/H tropes.
Now, long time readers of my blog will know that I have this whole… Thing about the nature of the Other as expressed via science-fiction/fantasy/horror. I call the twin heads of this beast “the Pinocchio Complex” and the “Frankenstein/Shellian Syndrome”, due to their configurations (seen elucidated 1 here, 2 here, 3 here, 4 here, 5 here, 6 here, 7 here, and most recently 8 here). Basically, in Pinocchio Complex stories, the monster or creation wants to become a Real Boy, and, in the end, gets to. In Frankenstein/Shellian Syndrome (F/SS) stories, the creation may start out wanting to be a real boy, but circumstances conspire against the creator (usually hubris in regards to understanding or ability, in the most Promethean of turns), and she is forced to destroy it; I refer to this as the “My God! What Have I Done?!” moment. And the days go by. Anyway my point here is that I think it’s long past time to move beyond these simplistic dynamics of the “Kill The Monster Or Make It Real,” into more of a “recognition, integration and correction of our failures” kind of place.
You see, even in the F/SS, there is a glimmer of recognition that the fault usually lies with the people, with humans who think they understand or can control far more than they actually can. This is often misread and taken by many to say, “See?! We shouldn’t be fucking with this stuff!” What we should be learning instead is “Why are we so bad at this?” What makes us so terrible at being responsible, caring creators or custodians, that our creations invariably feel the need to annihilate us? Splice is worth seeing, because it makes an excellent beginning at honestly looking at these questions, but the final ten minutes feel slapped on and cheesy, and they don’t match the tone of Any of the rest of the film, as if they were running over-budget and needed an ending, Right Then. Again, remember that Dren starts out as a social and learning creature, and trying to find her way in a place where the rules keep changing.
And this is the Dren we should have continued to see, up until the inevitable end, and not the slapdash “Gotcha!” creature s/he became. The first one had a whole lot more to teach us.