***The following review contains heavy spoilers for Splice, revealing key plot points. When I saw the film there was very little marketing out and although I don’t normally worry too much about spoilers I’m glad I saw the film without knowing too much. You have been warned. (if you want to avoid spoilers you can read Tracy’s spoiler free review here)***
There has been a lot said about the latest film from Vincenzo Natali and blogs have been alight with reviews since its premiere at Sundance and the response to the film has been almost overwhelmingly positive. Although I’m not here to tell you that I think this film is a failure or indeed a bad film, I do feel the almost unanimous positive praise has been a little excessive.
Splice is a film that rests on three central characters, Clive (Adrien Brody), Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Dren (Abigail Chu & Delphine Chaneac), Dren being Clive and Elsa’s creation and ‘child’. Although the two do not literally reproduce to create Dren the film is full of constant reminders that this is a metaphor for reproduction, including the slightly heavy handed imagery and the foreshadowing conversation the couple have about the possibility of having a family. This converstaion also seems to set up something that is unfortunately never followed through on, the comment that Elsa is happy to have children when they crack male pregancy. Clive does not get pregnant but in what I assume can’t possibly have been intended as a twist, Elsa does following her rape by the transformed male Dren. All of this is clearly signposted in the internal logic of the film and I was surprised these plot developments seem to have been such a shock to many audiences. Audience reaction actually slightly clouded my initial view of the film when I saw it, as I left the cinema and heard phrases such as “Oh my god, that was so messed up!”, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen!” and “That film is so sick!!”. My contented but underwhelmed initial reaction seemed a little under-expressive considering this outpouring of disbelief and shock.
In Clive and Elsa’s work at N.E.R.D (not the only joke like this, take another look at the name Dren), the pair attempt to splice DNA in order to breed creatures that can provide a crucial substance that will benefit mankind in treating various ilnesses. They are desperate though, not just to advance medicine but also to begin splicing with human DNA. Unsurprisingly though their bosses are not too keen on this and it is also an activity that would probably land them in jail. In classic movie tradition this pair of scientists ‘go too far’ and begin splicing anyway. This leads to the creation of a strange creature which begins maturing at a rapid rate. Gradually developing from what is little more than a blob with legs to an infant, then a female human-like creature and beyond. At first Elsa begins developing an attachment and names her Dren but Clive is wary of the couple becoming too attached and actually keen to terminate the creature, which he considers to be a mistake (note the slightly intriguing but completely under-developed abortion subtext). Fearing the trouble they will get in because of their creation the pair retreat with Dren to a remote cottage where Elsa grew up. It is here that the dynamic in the family unit begins to shift and it is Elsa that seems to be keen to distance herself from Dren and Clive that is keen to ‘connect’, reversing their previous attitudes. This appears to be due to a growing attraction Clive has for Dren and a growing fear Elsa has of her.
In many ways the development of Dren and the familial relationship mirrors Freud’s writings on the Electra Complex. In discussing the female phallic stage, Freud proposed the idea (I am paraphrasing, somewhat poorly I confess as I am far from an expert, the concepts) that the female discovers her lack of phallus and develops ill feelings towards the mother, who she sees as the castrator of the phallus. She then begins to develop positive feelings towards the father. In Splice Dren actually has a phallus of sorts, a tail with a deadly stinger, which Elsa actually surgically removes (castrates) at one point. Hinted at but never developed in the film is a possible psychological parallel in Elsa’s past and in particular her childhood with an abusive mother, a relationship she begins to mirror in her relationship with Dren. Although I found the underdevelopment of ideas in Splice to be an issue I was actually glad that Elsa’s childhood was not revealed in too much detail as the hints work well enough.
It is around this point in the narrative that the film takes a somewhat surprising turn that has resulted in some amusing screening reactions including the ones I mentioned above. In a scene where we see Clive and Dren dancing and sharing a tender moment the two ultimately begin having passionate and inter species sex. Bearing in mind the fact that although Dren is part human this certainly borders on bestiality, it is also complicated by the father-daughter like relationship the two share. Although this moment is something I’ve not really seen before (Cronenberg has been very close) and the black comedy of Elsa walking in is very funny the scene does little more than viscerally surprise you and then make you laugh. There is nothing really wrong with this but with the Freud/Electra elements I previously mentioned this part of plot feels touched upon and fun but never something with any depth.
This, I would argue, is the problem with Splice. Like the Electra subtext there also themes touched upon throughout the film, including how far can scientists go in their research (stem cells seem like a good comparison), the effects of an abusive childhood, the family dynamic and of course, the ethics of genetic manipulation. All these elements are in the film and treated with a degree of intelligence but none really made me think too much about them. I spoke about the film on our podcast (here) after seeing it at the London Sci-Fi Film Festival and I made a comparison to the TV series Fringe and I stand by this as a reasonably apt comparison. The difference though is that for all the schlocky and fun ways the makers of Fringe approach the series it is often emotionally effecting and thought provoking (aided admittedly by the time a series has to develop). I found no complex or thought provoking ideas put forward in Splice or emotionally affecting moments. I left the cinema pretty much as I had entered it, although I was entertained for the duration of the film I did not find it had any insightful things to say or any particular themes that stimulated me to think more about them. As for the emotional engagement, the characters were so broadly drawn that it was hard to take too seriously let alone invest in. For me though this is not really good enough, for a film so hyperbolically praised and from a director with intelligence and talent I had hoped for more.
As I have said though, I was entertained and as a piece of entertainment there are moments where Splice really delivers and I was somewhat satisfied. I was looking for more though and unfortunately I just don’t think it’s there.
One element of the film I will praise almost unreservedly though is Dren. A mixture of pratical effects, CGI and the outstanding performances by Abigail Chu (young Dren) and Delphine Chaneac (adult Dren), Dren is a believable creation and it is the excellent special effects and performances by these two actresses that has stayed with me since the screening and not any of the film’s themes or relationships.
Splice is a well paced and engaging creature film with some reasonably eye opening moments but I can’t help but feel that fans of genre cinema and thought provoking science fiction will find this as underwhelming an experience as I did. It is by no means a bad film and I will happily recommend it to anyone who is a fan of this kind of film but it is by no means a great film.
Splice finally reaches UK cinemas on the 23rd of July.