Thursday, June 24, 2010

Squalor: Splice

Splice does a lot of good things, and considering the preachy subject matter, that might seem impressive. But stripped of it's slick atmosphere and creatively designed monster, a great disappointment sets in as characters are left hollow and undeveloped, the victims of poor pacing and a lopsided narrative that does nothing but bring the cliches to the forefront. 

Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) are not only snazzily dressed hipsters, but also some of the most brilliant scientific minds working in genetics. A couple at home and at work, they run the lab for a large drug manufacturer and develop the ability to splice together various animal DNA (creating "Fred" and "Ginger," two gelatinous, brain-like creatures) to create proteins used in drugs that will cure cancer and various other human diseases. Elsa, being the strong headed one, pushes the envelope one night, combining the animal DNA with her own. The embryo they create never gets destroyed, and the baby they name "Dren," grows to adulthood as they balance parenting, their own psychological pasts, and the moral implications of their creation.
Dren (Delphine Chanéac) herself, is a triumph of special effects, the care taken with the details during the extensive re-shoots visible in every swish of her tail and blink of her eyes. She's frightening and beautiful, freakish in a perfect way that's hard to take your eyes from. The cinematography is appropriately dark and stylized providing the perfect backdrop for the horror to come without making the film lose its modern art house aesthetic.

To its credit, Splice never really messes around with the "moral" issues surrounding genetic manipulation; the stuff we've already heard them fighting about on political shows and NPR for years now. Yes, there's a bit of discussion at the beginning and yes things change gender and grow spiny tails, and it's clear that Elsa and Clive's creations are dangerous. But the real danger isn't Dren. It's Elsa and Clive's own humanity and the psychological damage that they imprint upon their test tube daughter as she struggles with her changing body and burgeoning power, a much more engaging discussion than the one I was expecting.
But despite this interesting framework, director Vincenzo Natali can't bring his story or his actors to support it. The most successful films make you feel like you know the characters within a minute or two, at least setting the scene and creating a outline for the action to come, but Splice throws the audience into the story without bothering with any details. While Elsa seems a bit like someone who'd cut you in a dark ally and Clive seems willing to do whatever she says, we never really get a reason for the creation of Dren, or a glimpse into the minds behind her. I'd be ok with that, and the love that the scientists develop for the creation they once would have aborted, but Natali takes the film in a different direction.
Halfway through, as Elsa and Clive take the teen-aged Dren to a secluded barn that used to belong to Elsa's mother, it's revealed that Elsa had a horrible childhood, horrible in which ways we'll never know. Natali doesn't show us this throughout the film (other than a brief encounter in which Elsa displays skeptism as Clive talks about having children), but tells the audience in a sentence. From then on, Elsa's loving behavior takes a drastic turn for the worse, her neurotic and violent behavior encouraging Dren to act out and Clive to seek love elsewhere. It's the catalyst for the horror and perversion that ends the entire last half of the film, as she changes her mind every few minutes, debating whether to hug or kill Dren. Despite a fine editing job, this narrative back and forth makes the film's pacing erratic. By suddenly dropping this on the audience, Natali makes her unexpected emotional twists from love to hate unbelievable.
 Polley herself may be part of the problem in her failure to communicate the depth of Elsa's pain, her emotions as shallow as the petri dish she uses to concoct her genetic monsters. Although it's not exactly a fair comparison, I couldn't help but think of Charlotte Gainsbourg's stunning performance in Lars Von Trier's Antichrist. With a subtle hand, both Von Trier and Gainsbourg created a full picture of a mother and partner strung out to the extreme, smoothly building the tension to the breaking point. Had Natali and Polley worked harder to bring just an iota of that same care and narrative building, it would have taken this film to the next level, especially since the ideas are already there, but not laid out in a satisfying way.

Despite this somewhat major, destructive narrative issue, Splice has something to say, and for once it's not the tripe you'll expect to hear. While it may not redeem the film's troubled construction, it makes it interesting enough to stick with for two hours.

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