Sundance 2010: SPLICE Review

[Apropos of its North America premiere tonight at the Sundance Film Festival and that the director is writing a column for this site, here is a re-post of my take from last October.]

The elegantly named Splice is Canadian science-fiction filmmaker Vincenzo Natali's most handsomely crafted film to date. The film is surprising because it is not the usual action and chase oriented creature-feature, but rather a genre mash of science fiction cautionary tale and a young parenting drama (a cautionary tale of a different kind). Freudian family politics with bio-evolution in fast-forward? Let us just see how elastic a genre movie can get!  For a while now, David Cronenberg has been moving towards traditional looking films with the literal gooey body/mind psychology now relegated to tattoos and submerged personalities. Splice acts as a new version of his mainstream hit (a rare successful remake) The Fly.  In that 1986 film the overriding metaphor covered the anxieties and body rot of STDs (after all, the merging of Seth Brundle and an external 'bug' had Brundle-Fly decaying on a quite graphic level.)  Natali has transferred and co-opted elements of this to the anxieties of post-millennial parenting and the number of forces (external and internal) that influence their ability to simply raise your children.


Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clyde (Adrien Brody) are the successful husband wife genetic team that have made the cover of Wired Magazine, and have their own tidy and private division (N.E.R.D., one of those movie acronyms for which the science jargon is compressed into a cute word) of a large multinational pharmaceutical company. The are famous for combining a number of animal DNA and impregnating an ovum to give birth to fleshy organic blobs (with mouths, tails and even gender). The agribusiness parent-corporation hopes that certain advanced proteins and enzymes can be extracted and synthesized for big patents and big dollars. But Elsa wants to move to her own next challenge, incorporating human DNA into the cocktail, ostensibly to see if it can be done (an academic reasoning) but perhaps for more personal reasons, as Clyde is pushing for kids and she is not ready to mess with her own body. Like just about every science experiment in the history of cinema, Frankenstein is as good a signpost as any though, things get a bit out of hand. The violent birth of a feral creature causes a little arm trauma to Elsa, with Clyde trying to abort it. But scientific curiosity, and a good bit of old-fashioned pussy-whipping keep Clyde at bay. As it grows rapidly and picking up more than a few characteristics of a human female it also gets a name, Dren.

The center-piece of the picture, the combination of 'girl-in-suit,' make-up, and Greg Nicotero prosthetics takes the uncanny valley, razes it to the ground and rebuilds its central creature into something simply wonderful. Riffing on Ridley Scott's concept of let's watch the rapid evolution of a foreign organism, the film looks at Dren both as an experiment and as a human. The parents fight in an effort to raise the 'child' and not be discovered for the ethical borderlines they have crossed. But Dren remains feral and is fast approaching puberty. Natali is not shy with the sexuality in the film, nor the icky biology, but never loses sight of the human factor. The pacing of Splice is the trick, it is not perfect nor in a hurry, but then you should not rush wonder, and Drens development is certainly breathtaking. The film keeps things on a small scale, mother, father, child with a few external pressures to complete the focus of the narrative. Personally, I would have loved for the picture to be a bit wider reaching, but the core of the film is the loss of rationality (and objectivity) in the face of your offspring. Clyde and Elsa make many questionable decisions (as all parents do in the heat of things), but the emotional attachment is carried quite well on the shoulders of two very capable actors.

This leaves Splice in a bit of a middle ground, fans of balls out monster movies will be a bit baffled by the films deliberate pacing, and those who might latch onto the parenting metaphor are likely to be turned off by the graphic design of the creature, or the uncomfortable sexuality of the film ("Tell me about your mother..."). For me: Sweet Bliss.

Making a lot from minuscule budgets has been the directors calling card since the literal puzzle-box film Cube which made the most it its single set via colour and creativity. Give this director some money and you get a gorgeous looking film. Yet the fusing of two distinct types of films with the emphasis on emotional evolution over character or plot put the film in a strange middle ground. A treat for fans of smart and interesting genre film-making, but it may leave some feelings of disappointment to the blockbuster crowd. Hey, if Duncan Jones' Moon (another savvy science fiction picture on a tiny budget light on action, but big on ideas) can find a satisfactorily wide audience, perhaps Splice can too. Those willing to go along with Natali and Dren may not get what they 'want' in terms of expectations of this type of movie, but are in for a film that is soon likely to be considered a Canadian genre gem.



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