Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 July 2010

Venues: Nationwide

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Vincenzo Natali

Writers: Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, Doug Taylor

Cast: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chanéac, David Hewlett, Abigail Chu

Canada 2009

104 mins

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.

Alex Fitch

2 thoughts on “Splice”

  1. Hey Alex! Good review, though I do take slight exception (or perhaps wanted a bit more expansion) on your comments regarding the film’s speedy approach to “the shifting attitudes and desires of the creature’s makers” and the final act’s similarity to many other movies. First of all, what impressed me was the film’s originality, perversity and intelligence, but that these elements were enclosed within the context of a slick, efficient package that DOES still deliver on a solid level of genre expectations. While I personally could have used more emphasis on those shifting attitudes, I would only have wanted the emphasis to have been even more excessive and/or intense with respect to the more perverse aspects of these changes. I’m only hoping there might be an “unrated” DVD/BluRay that appeal to my peculiar fetishes. As for the end, I too found it a tad predictable, however, not in any annoying fashion, but rather, one that was incredibly suspenseful in spite of the familiar territory. I found it a thoroughly satisfying work and, because of my wonderfully precocious nine-year-old daughter’s obsession with the picture, I was forced, during its opening two weeks of release to see it four more times.. Each time seeing “Splice” got richer for me and I was never bored on subsequent viewings.

  2. You took your nine-year-old daughter to see it 5 times?! Was it in response to the question “Daddy, where do babies come from?”? I guess I was right about you Canadians… 😉

    Overall, I really enjoyed it too, and agree that an unrated DVD might iron out the few problems I had with the film. I’ll be interviewing Vincenzo Natali soon, so will ask him if he had to curtail the running time at all and cut any more extreme moments…

    Further to what I said about Cube arriving too soon to create an interest in the locked room / survival torture sub-genre, I see that Inception covers some of the same ground as Cypher, so I guess he was ahead of the game with that too!

    BTW: I’m thoroughly enjoying your Colonial reports… One day I’ll make a pilgrimage to Winnipeg!

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