While Vincenzo Natali’s four feature films have a few things in common - a single word title, small casts featuring David Hewlett and being situated in the environs of the fantasy/science fiction genre - they couldn’t be more different in terms of (high concept) plot. Cube features six characters with partial amnesia enclosed in a futuristic death trap. Cypher is a Philip K Dick-style spy thriller about shifting identities and corporate espionage. Nothing is a two-hander set in a house surrounded by an encroaching white void. His new film Splice is an update of the Frankenstein story through the lens of modern fears of genetic modification. Compared to Nothing, or even Cube, you’d think Splice would be an easy sell to the financiers. However, while the film has proved to be a reasonable box office and critical success in the US, Natali revealed in his video introduction at Sci-Fi London that getting funding for the movie was arduous until executive producer Guillermo del Toro came on board.
Having seen the film I can imagine why. The story is familiar enough: ambitious scientists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) decide to disregard their company’s instructions not to go rushing ahead with a gene-splicing project that has already yielded satisfactory results and end up creating a dangerous human-animal hybrid. Variants of the story have turned up in a number of films over the last quarter-century such as The Fly (1986), Species (1995) and Alien Resurrection (1997). Each of these have suggested that a creature with mixed human/non-human DNA will have a skewed sexuality, but as Splice adds elements of bestiality, incest and paedophilia to this, it is easy to see why any financier who initially read the script might have got cold feet. Of course, it is precisely these elements that make The Fly superior to the exploitative ‘T&A’ of a movie like Species and Splice an intriguing and relatively daring film. Perhaps it’s something to do with Canadian sensibilities - too much introspection on long winter nights - but Canadian cinema often presents some of the most fascinating explorations of human sexuality on screen, not only in the films of David Cronenberg, but also in those of Guy Maddin and Robert Lepage, and with Splice, Vincenzo Natali has added another notable genre film to that list.
In the TV mini-series Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), writer Christopher Isherwood was one of the first authors to suggest that if a human scientist tried to create augmented life, the creature might turn out to be handsome rather than horrific - visually, if not morally. In Splice, the creature starts off as a cute alien pet, but soon grows into a beautiful young woman (albeit with a prehensile tail and reptilian eyes). This creature, whose androgyny turns out to be important to the plot, becomes an object of desire for both its creators, one of whom is also a genetic parent, and the film explores some of the perverse possibilities of post-human relationships. This section of the film ultimately unbalances the whole project as the shifting attitudes and desires of the creature’s makers are dealt with a little too quickly while the final act is too similar to a dozen other movies.
In spite of its few shortcomings, the film has much to commend it and its ideas are adeptly fleshed out by an excellent cast. Sarah Polley is an idiosyncratic actress with a number of terrific SF/horror performances under her belt - Dawn of the Dead (2004), eXistenZ (1999), Last Night (1998) - and she is equally good here. Adrien Brody preceded Splice with the Dario Argento film Giallo (2009), which continued the director’s downward slide into DVD bargain bins, and while good actors often sleepwalk through genre films, Brody is well used here. His casting against type as an action hero in Predators (2010), not to mention his role in the underrated time travel film The Jacket (2005), shows that science fiction is a genre that suits his brooding demeanour and haunted looks.
While Splice was not the massive hit in the US that ‘geek’ websites predicted, it has the potential to move Natali out of his reputation as a niche director of speculative fiction. While Cube, for example, arrived a little too early to benefit from the success of the similarly themed Saw (2004) and its endless stream of sequels, Splice is intriguing and subversive enough to get the director the larger recognition he deserves. Natali is currently rumoured to be attached to adaptations of a couple of lauded but challenging science fiction classics - William Gibson’s Neuromancer and JG Ballard’s High Rise - and if anyone can tackle thought-provoking SF and do so on a relatively low budget, he’s certainly the man for the job.