Science fiction horror movies have long been informing us that there are realms in which Man Was Not Meant To Meddle. This warning usually comes via a solemnly silly overblown cautionary tale that revels in its own exploitiveness — wow! look at the freakish product of mad science and man’s arrogance run amuck! isn’t it cool? — while simultaneously chiding us for agreeing with the filmmaker that yes, indeed, the freakish product of mad science and man’s arrogance run amuck really is pretty cool, isn’t it? “You think it’s cool?” such movies suddenly turn around and slap us somewhere round the middle of Act Two. “You’re gonna be sor-ree!”
Vincenzo Natali — who made the intriguing and original Cube more than a decade ago — has a new twist on this hoary subgenre: What if there were realms in which woman was not meant to meddle?
It’s not as progressive as it sounds. But you knew that already.
The realms are pretty much the same ones that man gets his comeuppance for meddling in: whatever scientific bugaboo is hot and controversial at the moment. So here we have geneticists Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley: Beowulf & Grendel, Dawn of the Dead) and Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody: Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Brothers Bloom), who have made a career of creating “multispecies morphogens,” and are about to debut their crowning glory: Fred and Ginger, a pair of horrific-looking blobs built up from the genes of many species that promise to, we’re told, supply the basis for countless new medications and treatments for all that ails humanity. Fred and Ginger are intriguing extrapolations of real current science, but the drama invented around them by Natali — who cowrote the script with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor — is hopelessly naive: the film pretends that the public response to Fred and Ginger would not be one of moral outrage. Moral outrage would only come as a result of Elsa and Clive’s next project: creating a “multispecies morphogen” that includes — as Fred and Ginger do not — human DNA.
Fred and Ginger would have been fodder enough for a thoughtful science fiction horror film, one that was genuinely concerned with exploring modern scientific ethics. But Natali appears more interested in serving up a kind of sexual torture, of the audience as well as of his protagonists. You’ve seen the posters and the trailers: Though Dren, the creature Elsa and Clive mad-science into existence, starts out life as a larval blob not too distinct from Fred and Ginger, within days she is adult size and not so weirdly exotic that she isn’t supermodel-hot. (Dren is played, as a “grownup,” by the very lovely French actress Delphine Chanéac, with just a few CGI enhancements.) Natali wants the, er, male members of his audience to want to fuck Dren. And the punishment he will dole out to Elsa for her overreaching into realms she was not meant to be meddling in will take on a particularly gendered tenor.
I was delighted with Splice, at first, to see that it featured a female scientist doing basically realistic work, and featuring a real actress, in Polley, in the role. But this is not a gender-blind part. The lead scientist here must be female because the horror that Natali wants to dole out is specifically of a female cast. (Though not, alas, in any way that is different from what big-budget, mainstream films typically dole out to women. There’s nothing feminist here.) Even Elsa’s motives are gendered in a way that those of male scientists in such movies are not, beyond the very generic undercurrent that runs through all such movies, in that they are, perhaps, about a male jealousy of female reproductive abilities. Elsa doesn’t want to be a mother in the usual way, because of issues with her own mother, and, indeed, her “mothering” of Dren is almost instantly downright psychotic. (Clive’s “fathering” leaves much to be desired, too, but he soon exits that role in Dren’s life in a way that Elsa never does.)
You don’t have to be clued in by the characters’ names — “Elsa” and “Clive” have Hollywood-Frankenstein connections — to know that this cannot end well. But on its way to its own uniquely distasteful ending, Splice is also neither B-movie cheesy enough nor X-Files sober enough to please in either direction. All it has, then, is the sexual torture. And that’s really not fun.
Watch Splice online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.