Before I get to the film at hand, let’s establish a couple of simple factoids to help you better understand where your trusty reviewer is coming from. Excuse me while I refer to myself in the third person for a moment, I think it helps to illustrate a few basic truths: Lars Beckerman likes his coffee black and does not need whipped creme on his Frappuccino. Lars Beckerman does not hate soccer, he just wonders why they don’t score more often (I mean, come on, the goal is the size of Delaware!). Lars Beckerman likes Lady GaGa but does not like slasher films.
So when I see an ad campaign for a film that flaunts slasher elements, cheap thrills, and “Don’t open that door!!!” kind of moments, I almost without exception avoid the picture. The thought of going to see any one of the Saw franchise turns my stomach. Not a judgement, just personal taste. I liked the original Halloween (1978), but had no use for any of its sequels, nor Freddie Kreuger or Jason and his hockey mask. I played hockey. That guy didn’t scare me.
I am, however, always curious to see how a big Hollywood film handles a big societal issue. Splice (now on DVD) attempts to tackle a biggie. The debate over stem cell research and ultimately the slippery slope argument of cloning.
The good news here is that, unlike other recent films of a similar thematic nature, the overly-earnest Darren Aronofsky misfire The Fountain (2006), or the underrated and meditative Gattaca (1997), or even the glossy Michael Bay film The Island (2005), Vincenzo Natali’s Splice actually has a sense of humor. At least in its setup.
Once you make it through the ominous and haunting score (Cyrille Aufort) that accompanies the title sequence, this film approaches its subject matter with a witty and intelligent, fair and balanced dialogue about an extremely touchy social and medical subject. Is human life sacred or can it be created in a petrie dish?
Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play a pair of scientists who have dedicated their young careers to bio genetic mutation research and discovery. They are also an item, grappling with the big ‘life’ decisions young couples…grapple with. ‘Clive’ (Brody) and ‘Elsa’ (Polley) work at N.E.R.D. (told you the film had a sense of humor) – Nucleic Exchange Research Development – and are both passionate about a pair of genetic blobs (‘Fred’ & ‘Ginger’) they have spawned that will actually mate (or “dance” as the metaphor goes) and produce a new super blob with untold scientific and medicinal benefits. Imagine the possibilities!!!! The actual details, the what and how of their work is secondary to the big questions the two young lovers are pondering.
‘Elsa’ the agnostic and ‘Clive’ the believer are apartment shopping as well as being on the verge of saving the planet from disease and other potential catastrophies. ‘Clive’ wants a family, but ‘Elsa’ doesn’t want to “…bend my life to suit some third party that doesn’t exist yet.” And when push comes to shove and they are now on the verge of spawning the newborn blob, ‘Clive’ insists that “…there are moral considerations,” to which ‘Elsa’ snaps back “Millions of people are suffering and dying with no hope! We might be saving them. What are the moral considerations of that?”
And then, of course, the pair are being pushed and sponsored by corporate interests, eager to capitalize on any scientific genetic breakthrough, especially if it could produce “medicinal proteins in live stock.” Sounds harmless enough, right? “If God didn’t want us to explore his domain,” asks their sponsor. “Why did he give us the map?’
So there ya go, the road to Hell truly is paved with good intentions.
The “baby” is born, the paternal blob put up on the shelf next to past specimens ‘Sid & Nancy,’ ‘Bonnie & Clyde,’ and ‘Bogie & Bacall’ while the “fetus” incubates in, B.E.T.I. (Biochemical Extrautero Thermal Incubatio – sporting a decal of legendary pinup girl Betty Page – get it?). The nod to Young Frankenstein’s ‘Abby Normal’ jar not lost here.
But once the cells of their creation are under the microscope they learn that the little one, referred to clinically as ‘H-5.0,’ is aging rapidly, days in minutes, rather than kill it (late term abortion also a big ‘topic’ in Splice) they see an opportunity and decide to observe its entire life and record it for scientific posterity. Bad decision!
‘Elsa’ quickly falls in love with their ‘child.’ Apparently she did want to start a family afterall, she just didn’t want to go through the cumbersome and “figure wrecking” nine months required to do it the old fashioned way. While ‘Clive’ insists she’s getting too attached and that they should terminate it, ‘Elsa’ says she is merely “compiling a developmental profile.” Until she begins dressing her up in Fred Segal toddler getups and presenting Barbie Dolls into the equation.
And that is just the beginning of where ‘H-5.0’ becomes ‘human.’
‘Elsa’ neglects to tell ‘Clive’ that a little something special was mixed into the blob recipe, a dash of Angelina Jolie and a pinch of Egyptian hippogryph, and once the cake is baked, all heck breaks loose. Parents be warned, the dash of Jolie gets the best of poor ‘Clive,’ who is, afterall, just a man.
Brody and Polley are well cast here, relatively believable as bio chemists struggling with the complexity of it all. Polley, who directed the wonderful Away From Her (2006), is especially good at portraying the mixed emotions of an atheist in search of something to believe in, equal parts longing and cold. The leap required in Splice is just how life-like and ‘real’ the creation becomes considering its wide variety of livestock DNA, taking on such human characteristics as jealousy, coveting, and even a nostalgic curiosity that motivates much of her eventual rage. ‘Dren,’ as ‘Elsa’ named her (Nerd backwards), is played by Delphine Chaneac, who performs admirably in her unspeakable (and hot!) alien form. Funny though, she can adapt to almost anything, she’s both amphibious and can sprout wings, she can even draw crayola portraits and play scrabble, and dance – but she can’t speak? Oh well. Probably for the best. She might have asked for the car keys. Although she would have been severely disappointed to learn that her folks drove a Gremlin! Don’t see those very often.
Ultimately, Splice is nothing more than a cautionary tale about the hazards of reckless science. While it is gratuitously sexual at times, director Natali co-wrote the screenplay and does not waver from the principles set forth in the outset of the story, that life is precious and not to be tampered with, even in the name of medical exploration.