Though the word chimera is steeped in mythological origins, it has become a term used to describe delusional ideals or impossible fantasies. We get a little of both in Vincenzo Natali's latest film, Splice, which is as much of a hybrid film as the creature at the heart of the story. Natali takes the standard creature flick and offers up his own spin on the mad scientist subgenre -- forcing us to ask questions about accountability and the uneasy relationship between science and ethics. When the boundaries between the creator and the created are blurred and our innate curiosity runs unchecked, what happens to our humanity? It's in the examination of these ideas that Splice becomes as much of a psychological and philosophical drama as a horror film -- despite what Warner Bros.' marketing campaign would have you believe.
Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are two biochemists (and also a couple) who have developed a gene-splicing technique that has enabled them to create a new species they have lovingly dubbed Fred and Ginger. The pair tries to convince the corporation they work for that it's time to push ahead with their project and introduce human DNA into the splicing technique as a way to cure some of the world's most devastating diseases. When the company denies their request, the duo rebel and set out to produce a viable hybrid and eventually succeed. While Clive is satisfied to leave the sample on ice until they can proceed with the corporation's backing, Elsa makes a brash move and eventually convinces him that they should fertilize it and bring it to gestation. Even though the couple has no intention of letting the sample grow to full-term, it starts to -- rapidly. The result is Dren -- playfully named after the NERD Corporation who they hide her from. At first Dren appears to be an amorphous blob on legs, but eventually she develops into a stunning creature -- as feminine as she is foreign. As Elsa becomes more attached to Dren, things start to go horribly wrong and the true nature of all is laid bare.
Dren's entry into our world is as violent as her end, and there is very little relief from the chaos Clive and Elsa create during her life. She is raised amid the couple's screaming matches, lives in dark rooms, is transported in a box like cargo, and forced to battle her animal instincts to create a more palatable existence for her creators. All of this is made even more effective by Natali's cinematography – including the use of odd angles and prowling camera movements -- as well as the set design which takes us from the cold, clinical world of the lab to environments that feel as feral as Dren herself. Dren is thrust into the world with no consideration for the consequences and Natali does an excellent job of creating sympathy for her character. Everyone involved has their own agenda: the NERD Corporation wants power, Elsa wants redemption, Clive wants physical affection -- but no one can escape who they truly are. Elsa's desire to undo her abusive past and find a second chance at life through Dren by literally inserting herself into the creature's genetic makeup is undone when history starts to repeat itself and she cannot escape the cycle of her own existence. Clive craves affection from his partner who makes it clear vocally and by her actions that she has different goals for their relationship than he does. Elsa controls the lovemaking, the baby making, the couple's career moves, and basically the entire relationship. The only way Clive ever seizes control is through the act of sex with Dren.
For him, she comes to embody the animal nature of Elsa made flesh. The corporation operates above it all, toying with things man was never meant to control in the hope of expanding its sphere of influence and the bottom line -- all the while failing to realize that nature is an entity that no one can control. And although the films' end felt predictable, it leaves the audience with an abundance of unanswered questions about what might happen going forward, and about how our own ethics would cause us to react in a similar situation. Natali's film makes us think about cycles and not only how hard they can be to break, but how often they repeat despite our best intentions.
Splice's narrative draws ideas from a diverse range of inspirations, most notably Frankenstein, but there are some obvious associations between Natali's film and the work of fellow Canadian filmmaker, David Cronenberg. This is felt instantly, from the creepy and effective opening title sequence, through to the gruesome and visceral meeting of Fred and Ginger. Parallels concerning biological fascination/repulsion, phallic representations, and the struggle of human nature also help us make the connection. Splice isn't a Cronenberg homage, but the influences will be noticeable to viewers familiar with the recurring thematic issues in his early filmography.
Vincenzo Natali has crafted another thought-provoking genre film with Splice. It takes some well-worn ideas about our desire to play God and repackages them for the 21st century -- a time period where the power for man to act upon these fantasies is well within our grasp. It's a surprisingly philosophical film, one rich with subtext and nuance that most audiences probably didn't expect going into it (it doesn't help that the ad campaign made it look like a standard "monster running amok" film ... ). Splice is essentially a B film with a deeper message. This isn't meant to disparage Natali's movie, in fact quite the opposite -- it's a film that works on several different levels. Messages about parenting and science, coupled with a dose of absurdity (in many ways Splice is like a nightmarish refraction of every romantic/parenting comedy you've ever seen) provide a fine backdrop, but Natali opens a doorway into something deeper if you choose to find it. In a perfect world, Splice will find an audience of people who are at least willing to look.