Sugar, Splice, and Everything Nice

Last Thursday, I went to see Splice. It didn’t sound great, necessarily, but I’d read conflicting reviews of it across the horror blogosphere, so I figured I might as well go check it out. (Besides, in theaters full of mediocre sequels and Marmaduke, it was pretty much the only appealing movie.) As expected, it wasn’t great, but it was food for thought, so I’m writing a review based on the notes I took while watching it. (Yes, I’m that kind of movie nerd.)

As you’ve probably read elsewhere already, Splice is about a pair of genetic engineers who tumble down the slippery slope, watch things spiral out of control, and endure other metaphors for incremental chaos. In short: Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) are young, they’re in love, and they clone things. They work for a corporation that pays them to produce special proteins; Elsa – against Clive’s wishes – decides to take their work to the next level, leaving them with a rapidly-growing chimera baby named Dren.

But, well, Elsa gets attached to Dren, then Dren gets attached to Clive, they go to a farmhouse in the countryside, a kitty dies… all the consequences you can easily foresee when you hear the words “mad scientist.” This is clearly co-writer/director Vincenzo Natali’s 21st century take on Frankenstein – the plot, character names, and the line “It’s alive,” constituting one big allusion – and he’s partially successful. The film cultivates many motifs already present in the Frankenstein story relating to the hell of parenthood, yielding a nice mix of black comedy and family melodrama. (Coincidentally enough, this is exactly what I thought of Seed of Chucky, which sustains this mood far better than Splice.)

Unfortunately, these delights are front-loaded, so Splice‘s second half is a lot less funny, clever, or logical – and the characters stop behaving in interesting or sensible ways. Granted, Elsa and Clive conform pretty well to the “absent-minded nerd” stereotype, subsisting on a diet of pizza, ramen, and tic tacs as they work on Dren. But as the film reaches its ickiest moment, science and reasonable decisions take a backseat to plot twists, which pretty much derailed my commitment to the movie. After that, it pretty much falls apart; much unnecessarily convoluted rape and murder ensue. It’s a real shame, because in a more deserving context, the closing scene could really have been powerful.

Focusing just on the first half of the movie, however, there’s a lot to love. The sudden scares and gross-outs you’d expect are pretty seamlessly incorporated alongside the interpersonal conflict. Clive and Elsa’s dispute over whether or not to keep Dren alive gets caught up with Dren’s own accelerating emotional problems, transmuting this little domestic squabble into pure horror. It’s just the right tense atmosphere for a simultaneous lesson in the ethics of science and parenting.

Alas, all of this promise just leads to a dead end. Elsa’s mother was crazy and abusive… but that doesn’t really go anywhere. Clive wants a child, then doesn’t want this child, then really wants this child… but then he and Elsa change their minds altogether. Much of Splice aspires to the cool, perverse genius of David Cronenberg. Between the tiny cast, secluded Canadian settings, and the curious coupling of science and sex, you can tell that Natali studied The Fly, and studied it well. But rather than ending with The Fly‘s controlled tragedy, Splice goes off in a million directions at once, and fails to make characters’ deaths count.

Like Dren, Splice includes many of the right ingredients for success. It has a pair of talented and attractive stars, some great special effects, and an intriguing, if not overly original, premise. But as with Dren, these parts fail to congeal as the experimenters lose sight of their original goals. It’s no masterpiece, but an intriguing mesh of disparate genetic material. Was this ever about cinema?

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