Lighting cracks overhead whilst rain batters the castle walls. Frankenstein stands back to witness his creation and utters, “It’s alive!” But should it be? That is the central question posed in Splice, a modern modern Prometheus, and in a meta sense, it is also the question hovering over the entire film.
Elsa and Clive are the two scientists stepping in for Victor Frankenstein here in Vincenzo Natali’s first feature since 2003’s comedic misfire, Nothing. They have created Dren, a new organism created by combining a fruit salad of human and animal DNA. Though they struggle with the ethical and legal ramifications of their project, clearly ambition is the factor that pushes Elsa and Clive onward, and it’s unsettling to watch just how far they let things go.
It’s not surprising to see Guillermo del Toro appear in the list of executive producers of Splice, because this film is right up his alley. Indeed, one particular scene could have been from a del Toro film – one where the gruesomeness of this type of experimentation comes to the fore. This film doesn’t shy away from the more disturbing aspects of biological experimentation, and the film frequently delves into a kind of sci-fi body horror, only a few steps away from a Cronenberg film.
Sarah Polley (Elsa) and Adrien Brody (Clive) were fantastic casting choices, though I perhaps believed them more as a loving, funky and über-rich couple than as brilliant genetic engineers. This has more to do with the script, I suppose, and after twenty minutes or so it becomes easier to gloss over the rather shallow approach to hardcore science we’re witnessing. David Hewlett (as my girlfriend pointed out recently, the ‘best’ performer from Cube) has the thankless task of being their grumpy supervisor, whilst it is Delphine Chanéac who has the most fun as the monstrous creation with a birdlike curiosity.
The special effects are really quite incredible. Whilst I wouldn’t mistake them for reality, there are many, many fantastic shots in Splice, and despite how many special features I have watched on DVDs, I still can’t figure out how it was done. The majority of this work was courtesy of C.O.R.E. – the group that provided the special effects shots pro bono on Natali’s breakout (and still his best) film, Cube. Whilst Dren’s character design borders on ridiculous, she at least works as a brilliant combination of CGI, animatronics and make up effects.
The main problem with Splice is that I felt exactly the same way about the film as Elsa and Clive did about their creation – disgusted, horrified, intrigued and sympathetic. To quote Jeff Goldblum’s character from Jurassic Park, these scientists “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. Natali takes the film to rather extreme places, and I was never quite sure if he should have – was he simply doing his best to shock us or did the film have some other purpose? Many of the discussions between the lovers/scientists seem to be excuses, rather than genuine justifications for taking the next step in their experiment.
If the aim of Splice was to be equal parts shocking, ridiculous and curious, then the film succeeds. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make for a well-rounded viewing experience. The shifts in tone (and narrative stepping stones) are bunny-hops rather than smooth changes in gear. Similarly, the film has a rather exploitative approach to concepts of mental illness and child abuse, something that comes across as gauche and tacked-on simply in an attempt to raise the stakes.
Splice is certainly a film for science fiction and horror fans. Those looking for something purely entertaining (and entirely palatable) need look somewhere else.Rating: