Mostly I felt uncomfortable during Splice. I wrung my hands a lot and rubbed my eyes; the kind of anxious fiddling that should spell trouble for a film. The thing is though, I’m not sure how much of my discomfort was intended by the filmmakers, and how much was just a product of poor decision making. On one hand, Splice is intentionally brimming with disconcerting genetic science, it’s hazy morality and ghastly creatures tantalizing. On the other, it’s lousy with unlikeable characters, maddening choices and awkward exchanges. Trying to gauge what’s intended and what isn’t can be taxing to say the least, which shouldn’t necessarily guide judgment. But it does, and that inconsistency, coupled with the assumption that I probably wouldn’t like the filmmakers all that much, means an unstable experience that’s more down then up.
Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrian Brody) are rebellious geneticists, hell bent on being the first to splice together human and animal DNA. When they secretly follow through with the illegal procedure, and give figurative birth to an entirely new creature, their story begins in earnest. The baby girl, at first monstrous and eerie, begins to grow into something more recognizably human and Elsa, against her better judgment and the pleadings of Clive, takes on the role of mother, and names the infant creature Dren (Delphine Chanéac). Around the half way point it becomes clear that this story is set up as some kind of Greek tragedy. It might have helped to know this from the beginning, though that’s more a marketing mistake than anything. Splice, from everything I had seen was going to be a monster movie, which isn’t entirely accurate. It’s much more a relationship thriller, with a loving couple whose trust is slowly seeping away and test tube child they can never fully understand. There’s a constant fluctuation between the trio, and it’s undoubtedly modeled after any number of tragic fables, even employing Freud’s Electra complex somewhat effectively. While this is all well and good, and even potentially interesting, it’s confused by the hardcore Science Fiction of the story. It’s not that Sci-fi and Greek tragedy are mutually exclusive, but they don’t mingle very amicably and it takes a more talented hand to meld them than writer/director Vincenzo Natali seems to possess.
There’s something to be said for keeping your characters simple. The more elements you enlist to define them, the more likely you are to alienate your audience. After all, we want to identify with who we’re watching. This dilemma is maddeningly present in Splice. Let’s start simply: within the first ten minutes of the film, we see scientists Elsa and Clive step out of their lab in street clothes, having prior to this donned only the standard white coats. They look like assholes. Clive in particular, with a purple and green plaid jacket/pants combo that could have come from the set of Burton’s Batman, looks like he was dressed by a fifth grader. I’ll gladly admit that I’m nit-picking, but here’s the thing, there are no choices made on a film set frivolously. When setting that scene, somebody chose these clothes, and Natali gave them the green light, and now I’m spending time considering the implications of this ridiculous outfit. “Am I supposed to think these people are cool? Is this supposed to be what ‘hip’ geneticists look like? Is the director saying these people are nerds, or does he think they look good? Because Adrian Brody looks like a dude at a There Might Be Giants concert.” It’s simply wasted time. They could have saved themselves from all kinds of petulant criticism by just dressing the characters normally. And if this were the extent of the troubles I could give it a pass, but that’s not the case. Their walls are adorned with weird, ugly kitsch. Their music is lame. They are, frankly, people I don’t have any interest in. And bigger than all of these minor irritations is the fact that Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley don’t have much in the way of chemistry. When their happy in love it’s cloying, and when they’re upset with each other it’s monotonous. The stakes of the relationship never seem very high.
While there is unfortunately a general apathy regarding the character’s well being, it’s hard to assuage, what with Elsa and Clive being the absolute dumbest “geniuses” I’ve ever seen on screen. I’ll grant that without the reprehensible decision-making there wouldn’t be much story, but so many of the things they do are equivalent to “don’t go in there!” moments, it’s impossible to care when things fall apart. Hubris can be a powerful tool for a writer, but here it’s wielded like a toddler with a hose. Polley’s character is just reckless, willing to break the law and seriously stress the bonds of her relationship. Are we supposed to root for her or not? And as you begin to tally all these frustrations you’re overwhelmed by the extent to which the filmmakers lack any consideration for their audience. I’m not saying the film should cater to me entirely, but it would be nice to feel as though Natali was aware that his tastes aren’t universal. That in fact, he might not be as clever as he imagines himself to be.
Something is redeemed by the loftiness of Natali’s goals, though only a little. There’s certainly an interesting back and forth, up and down with raising an alien creature, and there’s no lack of complexity to Elsa and Clive’s dynamic with Dren. In one particular scene sure to be discussed endlessly, the Freudian complex is taken to it’s inevitable conclusion, and the trio officially cross a threshold they can’t come back from. It’s an interesting scene, and I wanted to be impressed by what it was trying to do. But I, and pretty much everyone else in the theater ended up laughing, and not only in the moment but for a few minutes afterward. Not only had the characters crossed a threshold, the audience had as well. And that’s probably the best way to condense Splice. Vincenzo Natali’s eyes are just bigger than his talent. If he had been successful with what he was attempting to do, you would be reading a different review right now. Unfortunately, whether it’s a story that’s too ambitious, or a director who doesn’t have the chops, Splice ends up a group of elements unable to…well…splice.