When Vincenzo Natali's Splice (140 screens) opened in early June, we had already had a bunch of summer duds, including Robin Hood, Just Wright, Letters to Juliet, MacGruber, Shrek Forever After, Prince of Persia, Sex and the City 2, Killers, and Marmaduke, as well as Iron Man 2, which I loved, but which seemed to disappoint many viewers. I had seen Splice prior to all this, as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, and in the screening room, there was a general happy buzz as it ended. Here, by gum, was a terrific, fun, and perhaps even brave, summer entertainment! And it was an original screenplay! It looked as if it was going to be a counter-programming smash, something that would generate strong word of mouth and continue to draw crowds as all the behemoth Hollywood junk fell away like toppled Godzillas.
But when Splice actually opened, the reviews were good, if not glowing. And, like Iron Man 2, there was a general sense of disappointment. It could have been better. It just wasn't quite there. I feel like I had seen it before. That kind of thing. Here's what I think. I think audiences had seen parts of Splice before, but never in this kind of combination. It's a "mad scientist/building a creature" kind of movie, which has been done in everything from Frankenstein to Jurassic Park. But this is the first time that a mad scientist has been a woman. Usually it's the man who goes mad and tries to create life, since he can't do it naturally. But here, Elsa (Sarah Polley) is so screwed up that she's not interested in conceiving life the ordinary way. It's too boring (though she does like the initial part of the job, if you know what I mean).
Then, without giving too much away, the script ventures into some seriously twisted and demented moral ground as Clive (Adrien Brody) finds himself drawn to the creature in some unholy ways. There's a scene in which Clive, caught in the act, arrives on Elsa's doorstep to try to apologize, but he can't even begin to imagine how to do that. He has crossed so many new lines in so many ways that even he himself is just dumbfounded. Was nobody shocked by this stuff? Or didn't anyone really notice? Maybe it just feels a bit too tender in its presentation; it's not set up like a button-pusher or a challenge, like The Human Centipede was.
Then there's the creature Dren, played as an adult by Delphine Chanéac, with some odd enhancements and re-arrangements here and there. She's oddly beautiful, but also deadly. The girl alien in Avatar was simply tall and blue, and unmistakably beautiful. It was perfectly fine to adore her. But in Splice, Dren is alluring, and -- at the same time -- not. She's suspicious, yet fascinating, yet monstrous. She's not easy to size up.
I think the entire movie is not really that easy to size up. The trailer shows off some horror elements, like the baby creature hiding in the shadows, and getting ready to leap out at unsuspecting Elsa, but it's not really a very scary movie. It's very much a science fiction idea, but unlike most other science fiction movies these days, it's not about war or politics. It's about something much more uncomfortable and closer to home: our physicality and sexuality. This was a hard package to sell, and Warner Bros. trying to wrap it up as a summer blockbuster was not an easy choice. If it had simply had a smaller release, it probably would have become a cult classic -- like Natali's earlier movie Cube (1997) -- on its own, but it's too complex to please a whole bunch of people all at the same time. Perhaps, after the summer is long over, Splice will finally find the adoring fans it deserves.