Splice has already been reviewed on FilmFracture, so I won’t re-hash a plot synopsis here. What I am here for is to delve into the nitty-gritty of the craziest, wildest, and yes, best picture of the summer. Director Vincenzo Natali’s modestly-budgeted picture, released by Warner Bros., has grossed a modest $10 million in a week of release. But it’s managed to do something its B.O. opponents haven’t: ignite some fearsome debate. While Sex and the City 2 unleashed a torrent of vitriol with little defense and Prince of Persia bowed to mostly boredom, Splice actually has people talking–and yelling–about the movies. And thank God for that. This summer’s slate of pictures has been some of the most pathetic in recent memory. Everywhere I turn there’s a sequel (or threequel or qaudrequel), a bloated “re-imagining” (Robin Hood) or a lame adaptation of even lamer source material (the aforementioned Prince and the holy terror of 2010, Marmaduke).
Splice, however, is not based on anything specific, although it gleefully wears it cinematic and generic antecedents like a badge of gory honor. As an out and pride film nerd, I found myself smiling (and geeking out) at every reference to cinema in Splice. The most obvious homage is to James Whales’ Frankenstein films, the basic plotline of which (scientists mock God, create monstrous life, is destroyed by own creature) is replicated here with a few Freudian adjuncts. The film’s leads, Clive (Adrian Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are named for actors Colin Clive, who played Dr. Frankenstein, and Elsa Lanchester, who played Mary Shelley (and if you know the second role she played, you’re well on your way to deciphering Polley’s character). But the references are not just casual in-jokes; Clive and Elsa are hip young scientists who wear ironic t-shirts under their lab coats and name their genetically spliced creations Fred and Ginger, after Astaire and Rogers. Their ambition is rock and roll sexy; their reality (toiling for a giant corporation that clearly doesn’t care about their passion for splicing life in the name of scientific discovery) mirrors the frustration of modern bright young things. The Man is everywhere in this film, as in life. So, in true mad scientist fashion, the pair get themselves into a lot of extracurricular trouble.
Clive and Elsa are a couple constantly obsessed with coupling (they even name their celebratory champagnes after famous couples like Bonnie & Clyde), except in their own home life. They’ve been dating for seven years, live together, and aren’t married. He wants a kid down the line, but she’s rigidly against it. The reproductive ironies abound in this films, juxtaposing the two scientists’ passion for genetic splicing (patently unnatural) with their less than sensational sex life. Whereas Elsa didn’t want a child of her own, she’s a suspiciously nurturing mother to Dren, a compassion the once-hopeful of fatherhood Clive just can’t comprehend. And what about those sex scenes, the ones that seem to have ignited the most ire on the internet. Well, exactly. What of them? If you’re the kind of movie viewer easily launched into a giggle fit over human sexuality, this probably isn’t the film for you. If, however, you’re open to the possibility of a horror movie intentionally producing the kind of uncomfortable laughter that develops from watching a scene so brain-breakingly outrageous that the only reaction is a hearty guffaw, followed by some combination of moral outrage, stomach-turning disgust, and disbelieving delight that a major motion picture studio is actually releasing this scene into theaters, then Splice is definitely the film for you. Welcome to the awesome club.
I’ve also heard complaints that Splice isn’t scary enough. In other words, it’s not a traditional slice and dice, cheap thrills kind of picture. It’s not, thankfully. The film’s terror arises gradually. Splice’s treatment of motherhood, birth, sex and death produce the kind of creeping discomfiture that stays with you long after the closing credits have rolled. Speaking of credits, the opening credits, introduce a sense of uncomfortable terror immediately. You’re in a murky, green darkness, traveling through some sort of liquid; you hear, and feel, a heartbeat. The actor’s names are being writ into the sides of a creature–in scales. Ew. It starts to dawn on you–you’re inside a womb, traveling through amniotic fluid, past the scaly, serpentine figure of a creation that’s decidedly inhuman. French composer Cyrille Aufort’s unsettling score mimics the tingle you’re feeling inch up your spine. All this in the first three minutes.
Splice may not be traditional, but the film is all the better for it. Of course, you may not like it. You may buy a ticket and walk out of the theater cursing my name for this recommendation. So be it. The backlash on message boards is already as strong of the film’s critical support. It’s been accused of being anti-science, pro-rape, anti-women, ablist, misogynistic, as well as the usual filmgoer complaints of “dumb” and “boring.” But if you want to see something that doesn’t challenge you at all, that doesn’t care about the psychological complexities of its characters or the moral and ethnical implications of their work, a film that doesn’t give a lick about science or scientists, then please, don’t see Splice. Splice isn’t escapist light summer fare. There are no talking CG animals (Dren manages a word or too but they are far from adorable). It is, however, entertaining, well-acted, beautifully shot, an intentionally funny thriller with some gore and some suspense, but mostly the terror comes from within your mind as you’re watching it. Its horror is participatory; you’re meant to fill in the blanks. So, please, if you love smart, original movies, go see Splice. In this season’s dearth of worthwhile pictures, Splice is more than worth your time. If moviegoers ignore it, we’ll only have each other to blame when Marmaduke 2 hits theaters summer 2012.
For more by Kristen Sales visit her personal blog Sales on Film.