What a cruel, unusual movie.
Married geneticists Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) have created Fred and Ginger, a pair of strange, lumpy lifeforms they hope to mine for proteins and other things that can cure diseases and forward science by leaps and bounds.
The only thing missing from the formula is human DNA, and the corporation funding their research — for reasons both political and moral — is way too terrified to go there.
But Elsa isn’t.
Soon she’s got Clive spending late nights in the lab that lead to the secret creation of an oddly adorable — though noticeably temperamental — little female creature they end up naming “Dren,” which is the reverse of their acro-named lab, N.E.R.D. (Nucleic Exchange Research and Development).
Dren develops quickly and unpredictably, becoming an oddly, otherly, fascinatingly beautiful young … woman? Her ability to breathe underwater, her strange, birdlike legs, and her tail with the poisonous stinger at its end are only the beginnings of transformations in directions that Clive and Elsa could never have expected — but should have.
Equally unpredictable are the things Dren’s arrival unlocks within Clive and Elsa themselves after they try to hide her at the deserted farm where Elsa grew up, and the chances they take (and don’t) to try to make sense of this reckless, game-changing thing they’ve done.
And it all ends very, very badly … with a twist.
Splice looks and feels pretty fantastic on a low budget, for which director and co-writer Vincenzo Natali should be quite proud. The special effects are a subtle and effective blend of practical and digital, with French knockout Delphine Chanéac conducting a massive amount of facial performance through the makeup. Dren only communicates through chirps and clicks, making Chanéac’s job doubly hard. She rises to it, and she’s every bit as fascinating as the character demands.
As for Brody and Polley, much is asked of each of them in what turns out to be a very hardcore cautionary tale. Much of the film’s increasingly bizarre and troubling second half depends on these two to sell it, and they commit to it entirely. Brave work for everyone involved, even though I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the ending.
And that’s the kicker — I wish the script had given the same amount of effort as the actors. It’s a film that I’m glad I saw because I’d been curious about it for months, and I enjoyed it a lot for what it was, but I won’t buy it and probably won’t ever watch it again.
At this point, I’m going to start talking in detail about some things that happen in the movie while completely spoiling the ending, so if you’re planning to see it, please stop reading right now.
Are you still here?
This is your last chance to turn back. MAJOR SPOILERS INCLUDING THE ENDING in 10 …
… 9 …
… 8 …
… 7 …
… 6 …
… 5 …
… 4 …
… 3 …
… 2 …
Dren seduces Clive (though she really doesn’t have to try) into a graphic sexual encounter, which Elsa of course walks in on. This, of course, is only after Elsa’s own deep-seated mommy issues raise their ugly heads twice — first when she secretly encodes her own DNA into Dren, and again when she strips Dren naked in a dehumanizing, demoralizing move before forcibly removing Dren’s stinger. (Though like a shark’s tooth, it grows back.)
And then, by the end, Dren switches genders and becomes a winged male monstrosity that kills Clive and rapes Elsa before Elsa beats her/him/it to death with a rock.
Here’s my thing — I love action in movies, and I don’t mind violence. But one thing that immediately takes me out of a movie is rape, or even the threat of it. I watch movies to be taken someplace else, and to escape, and since there’s nothing more vile to me than rape, I just can’t handle it.
For example, it’s the reason that the movie Shooter is completely ruined for me, because the heavily implied rape of Kate Mara’s character not only adds nothing to the film but turns it into something else entirely. It begins and ends as a a fun, action-packed throwback to classic ’80s action movies like Commando with a modern Bourne twist, but the tonal change introduced by the nastiness of that subplot yanked me right out of the movie to the extent that I just never really got back into it. Shameful and cheap.
In Splice, the rape at least goes with the territory … to an extent. As I was watching the moments leading up to it, I kept thinking, “Well, as weird and as crazy as this is getting, at least they’re not having Dren rape Elsa.” And then, of course, it happened. It’s not nearly as graphic as it could have been, but I still draw a pretty firm line in the sand about that sort of thing.
What ultimately kills the final confrontation for me is that Dren is now entirely unrecognizable, and I think it would have been a lot more screwed up if they’d kept Chanéac as Dren instead of putting a man under the makeup. That way we’d still at least connect with the fact that the Dren we’d come to know was still in there somewhere, but instead we get a pretty standard chase scene with a brand new monster/rapist.
And then there’s the epilogue, which reveals that Elsa is pregnant with Dren’s heaven-only-knows-what, and the original corporation is planning to buy whatever crazy thing she bears.
And Elsa, who previously resisted having a real baby with Clive but couldn’t resist putting her own DNA into a creation that destroyed her life and created some kind of abominable new one within her, will have to live with this for the rest of her days. Assuming she survives the birthing process, I guess, which she’s obviously counting on doing so she can spend the money they’re paying her.
Pretty brutal and twisted, though I think the chase scene aspect of the preceding minutes makes the epilogue less thought-provoking than it could have been.
Like I said, I’m glad I watched it for my original curiosity’s sake, but I won’t be revisiting this one.
Trivia: Clive is named for Colin Clive, who played the Promethian doctor in 1931’s Frankenstein, and Elsa is named for his daughter in Ghost of Frankenstein.