Sunday, May 20, 2012

In the Lab, Late One Night--

The Teratology of Splice

One word: Homeschooling

In 1997, a picture appeared of a human ear on the back of a mouse. It’s a picture that set wheels turning; anti-genetic manipulation groups were horrified (despite genetic manipulation not being involved in the mouse’s creation), South Park lampooned the experiment in its 12th season ("Eek, a Penis!"), and after 10 years of financing, Vincenzo Natali created Splice (2009).

Can you hear me now?

Splice begins with a scene reminiscent of Fight Club’s opening: We float through a sea of biological muck, too close to tell if we’re looking at snake scales or a human fetus in utero. Suddenly, we see a light and we’re pulled into the waiting arms of Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley), scientists at the privately funded NERD research group. Besides making dreadful acronyms, they specialize in splicing together DNA from multiple animals to create new life. Their newest experiment is Dren, the world’s first human/animal hybrid.

This plush is an abomination before God and man.

Splice is Jurassic Park through a mirror, darkly. The raptor attack at the beginning (“Shoot her, shoot her!”), the gimmick of animals switching genders, the moral tone (Playing God should be left to god) all exist in Splice. But where Jurassic Park loses us in a lush jungle, Splice locks us up in a lab for half the film; when trees are finally shown, they’re barren in the middle of winter. Characters look gaunt and sickly under constant fluorescent lighting. It’s a much quieter film—instead of following several groups of characters as they try to escape, we’re focused on a single couple, Clive and Elsa.

The soul of Splice is the family dynamic between Clive, Elsa and Dren. While they begin handling their specimen with gasmasks and gloves, they soon transition to Barbie dolls and teddy bears as Dren becomes more and more human. The couple struggles with common parental problems: feeding, handling Dren’s first fever—Splice could almost be a prequel to Jurassic Park, with Dren playing the role of the first raptor bred by the scientists at InGen.

Raptors make terrible children.  They never call.

Splice is a daring effort. The conflict Dren creates and Elsa and Clive’s response will shock, but the lack of a likable character hamstrings the film. Clive and Elsa are scientists in the worst way: cold (Elsa treats Dren as equal parts specimen and daughter), impersonal (despite being a seasoned couple, the two barely touch one another) and immature (their work ethic is similar to an undergrad hopped up on Mountain Dew). Clive is weak, physically and morally. Elsa is absurdly rigid and arbitrary, putting her own interests before her colleagues and partner. The researchers are more monstrous than Dren—and she’s got kangaroo legs. It joins a long list of films that make the scientist a caricature: Frankenstein in 1931 (scientists refuse to take responsibility for their creations!), The Island of Lost Souls in 1933 (scientists are playing God!), The Fly in 1986 (scientists are reckless and short sighted!). These films don’t need to make us empathize with scientists—Splice, unfortunately, does.

Remember when Jeff Goldblum was a sex symbol?  Neither do I.

Despite its problems, Splice deserves credit for at least trying to have a conversation about bioethics. Daily advancements are blurring the lines between human and animal. Splice tries to shock people into thinking about where those lines should be, but it’s not Jurassic Park, no matter how many elements it shares. To tell its story effectively, it should have patterned itself as a film about a disquieting family dynamic and left the horror elements to Spielberg and ILM.


  1. "Clive is weak, physically and morally. Elsa is absurdly rigid and arbitrary, putting her own interests before her colleagues and partner. The researchers are more monstrous than Dren—and she’s got kangaroo legs."

    You sum up the movie perfectly for me. I am glad we watched it, though. If nothing else, we got free popcorn, a good laugh and we can now high five and say "double helix!" without feeling nerdy. Wait...nope.

  2. Yeah, it was fun. I also learned that if something's not working, you just have change the music to start off a montage.