Friday, June 11, 2010

Splice (2010)

My feelings about Splice changed a couple of times as I watched the movie, pretty much in conjunction with the act changes.

In Act One, a couple of scientists named Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) have created a new life form from the DNA of various animals. It’s able to produce chemicals that could revolutionize disease research, but unfortunately, they’re a bit too successful and the pharmaceutical company that’s funding them wants to move forward with synthesizing drugs rather than continuing to see what else the life form can produce. Fearing that they’re about to lose their only chance to continue their research, Elsa and Clive (mostly Elsa, but Clive’s complicit in his inability to say “no” to her) carry on in secret. They create another life form; this one containing human DNA in addition to the animal components. The experiment quickly grows beyond their ability to control it though.

As all of this is going on, I’m identifying mostly with Clive. Elsa’s taken control of the experiment and is the alpha personality in the romance between the two scientists, so Clive feels more out of control than she does. He’s the voice of reason and his constant message to her is that they need to stop this before it goes too far. Elsa ignores him however and forges on.

After the break: The modern Modern Prometheus and how it all falls apart.

John Rozum is right when he calls Splice a modern retelling of Frankenstein (there’s even an obvious homage in the main characters’ names). And for the most part, Splice is really, really good at telling that story. For instance, I’ve never seen a version that so powerfully communicates that This Is Wrong. In most Frankenstein movies, everyone’s anxious to get through the Creation part to the cool Monster and the Terrorizing of Villagers. In a way that no other version has ever done, Splice got me completely on board with one of Mary Shelley’s main points: that humanity was not meant to mess with this stuff. Like Clive, I wanted the experiment to be destroyed and for all of it to go away.

But then in Act Two, the new life form – now named Dren by Elsa – has developed a personality and I’m reminded of my traditional feelings about Frankenstein: identification with the Monster. Elsa has some issues around the concept of motherhood that affect her relationship with Dren. Clive still doesn’t know what to think and is becoming even more confused by his feelings toward Dren. Is she a daughter to him? A pet? A scientific experiment that he’s become very invested in? Something else? As he says at one point, in creating Dren, he and Elsa have changed the rules and he has no basis for knowing how he’s supposed to relate.

While he’s trying to figure this out though – and while Elsa’s trying to figure out how to be a mother to a now-adolescent girl – I’m rooting for Dren. I’m remembering Frankenstein’s Monster and how he just wanted to be loved. And I’m thankful that Dren seems to have that love, however flawed Elsa and Clive are at showing it. Well… not however flawed. Because it turns out that it’s really damn flawed indeed and that maybe Dren would be better off with honest, pitchfork-wielding villagers than the confusing tangle of emotions in her creators. As with the first act, this was all incredibly interesting to watch and think about. My emotions flipped, but they flipped exactly as the story wanted them to. It wasn’t until Act Three that the movie failed.

I’ve got to spoil some of the third act to talk about it, so if you don’t want to know some of how it ends (I won’t reveal everything), you can quit reading with the knowledge that it wasn’t resolved nearly as effectively as it was set up. If you want details about why: onward.


In a particularly dramatic and horrifying scene earlier in the film, Clive and Elsa discover that one of their first creations has changed gender. The disastrous results of that event propel the story into the final act, making it much more difficult for the couple to balance their time between Dren and the research they’re being paid to do. More importantly though, it sets up the change that Dren’s going to undergo.

After some especially traumatic experiences with Elsa and Clive, Dren also becomes a male. And – like with the earlier creation that changed – a violently aggressive one. From a plot standpoint, this is fine. The idea was introduced early on, so it’s not a What the Hell Just Happened kind of surprise. My problem with it is that it completely disconnects me from all the feelings I had invested in Dren up to that point.

By changing Dren’s gender – including how she looks, so that she appears masculine – the filmmakers have created an all-new character. I was prepared to go to the end rooting for Dren. I’m used to that with Frankenstein movies. I don’t endorse the Monsters’ taking of innocent lives as they often do, but I understand the rage that drives them to it. It’s karmic justice for the scientists’ not only tampering with Things Man Was Not Meant to Understand, but also for treating their creations really, really poorly. But by essentially switching Monsters on me at the end, I’ve got no reason to keep cheering for Dren. She doesn’t look the same; she doesn’t act the same. There’s nothing about her that resembles the character I’ve grown to care about.

And at the same time, I still haven’t forgiven Elsa and Clive for their roles in all of this, so my allegiance doesn’t just shift back to them. That leaves me with no one to cheer for during the climax and – no matter who wins – with an empty feeling when the closing credits roll. 

Two out of five sweet, little, baby monsters.

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