I’ve been a fan of Vincenzo Natali for a long, long time. It began with Cube, his terrifying and yet moving film about a group of people stuck in a deadly trap; continued with the genre-hopping thriller/love story Cypher, and reached its apex with Nothing, an incredible comedy masterpiece about two people stuck in… well, nothing. Natali is a filmmaker who can do a lot with very little, and I’ve always wondered what he could do with a bigger budget.
The answer to that question? He could make one of the most disturbing and yet intelligent films I’ve ever seen.
I’m not sure I have the words to tell you just how much this film disturbed me. I am not easily disturbed by films, but Splice left me reeling. It was a genuine shock.
And yet Splice is not really a horror movie. It’s not gory torture porn or boo-based bullshit. It’s not misanthropic or needlessly cruel. It’s not relentlessly dark and nihilistic. It’s just realistic and intelligent. And it makes me feel weird just to think about it.
OK, let’s back up for a moment.
Splice is the story of two brilliant young scientists, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), who are engaged in the business of genetic engineering. To be more precise, they create new organisms for a large pharmaceutical company. They’re both geniuses and they know it, but while they are cocky and want to prove that they’re special, they are both likeable and motivated by scientific curiosity far more than by greed.
That’s how it starts, anyway, until they find out that their experiments will be discontinued and the focus of their research shifted, and Elsa goes against the company’s orders (and the law) to create a new being which also has human genes. Clive doesn’t really agree with what Elsa is doing, but she drags him along – something which apparently is a recurring problem in their relationship.
The main focus of the movie is the interaction between Elsa, Clive and the creature they have brought to life, which they name Dren (an anagram of Nerd). A clear parallel is drawn to parenting/having a child, which adds a lot of depth to the movie, and raises many additional questions. How do you treat your offspring? What do you teach them? How do you understand them? And crucially – how do you justify your actions to yourself? How do you deal with the unpleasant parts? How do prevent yourself from visiting your sins upon your children?
But Splice is – thankfully – not an allegory. Splice is science fiction, and it asks us to consider its story as a possible reality, to watch it as if it was real, and not some kind of thinly-disguised metaphor for something else.
There are very, very few movies that treat the subject of genetic engineering with anything resembling thought or logic. It’s a tricky subject for most people: otherwise intelligent individuals will, at the very mention of genetic engineering, turn off their brains and start spouting nonsense about how “it’s just wrong” or “it’s unnatural!” In movies, this usually takes the form of “there are some things Man was not supposed to know”/”this is God’s domain”/”scientists are all arrogant”/”what if someone cloned Hitler” and the like. None of these objections have anything to do with the actual science of genetic engineering, or with reality as we know it. (A clone is no more than an identical twin and we’ve been doing genetic manipulation since we started agriculture and domesticated animals.)
But just because some people’s arguments are absurd it does not follow that genetic engineering is harmless or should be treated lightly. It’s the same with any kind of technology: it all depends on how we apply it. One of the biggest dangers of genetic engineering is that its results are currently too unpredictable. People who claim that “we really know nothing about the human body” are complete idiots, but that doesn’t mean we know everything – far from it. We know how to modify genetic information, but since we don’t know the exact function of every gene (especially in conjunction with other factors or genes), we cannot reliably predict what will happen three generations down the line.
Furthermore, genetic engineering is in the hands of madmen. No, not crazy dictators or insane scientists – I mean businesspeople. People whose insane religion places profit higher than humanity, and who are entirely unconcerned with the consequences and responsibilities of genetic engineering. There’s a lot of money in genetic engineering, and the GM giants make it very hard for useful research on the subject to be published. And these days even when something is published you have to ask yourself who’s behind it – peer review isn’t what it used to be.
Finally, there is the issue of responsibility. Genetic engineering isn’t a digital simulation – when the result is a living being, we cannot ignore our responsibility for creating it. Neither can we claim to own it – especially not when it is intelligent. It’s one thing to simply grow an organ, but Dren is so much more than that, and Clive and Elsa deal with this in very different ways.
Splice takes all of these issues seriously, and presents us with both sides of genetic engineering: the potential and the beauty, as well as the abuse and the horror. It succeeds both at the science and at the fiction, telling a story about specific and relatable human beings while putting that story into a greater context.
On top of all that, the actors deliver fantastically nuanced and believable performances, the effects are stunningly real, and the direction and cinematography powerfully draw you into the story without being flashy or self-important. This is serious filmmaking – thrilling, fascinating, intelligent and above all human.
It’s a masterpiece.
- IMDb entry
- Wikipedia entry
- Interview with Vincenzo Natali (video and text)
- Slashdot: More Fake Journals From Elsevier