“Splice” is the latest film from Vincenzo Natali. Natali has the name of a great horror director, and he could just become one. I have never seen any of his previous works, but “Splice” shows that he knows this genre, and the several other ones that the film navigates.
“Splice” is infatuated with low angle, and usually subjective, shots. One of the best choices it makes is opening through the blurry, confused eyes of a newborn. This is no newborn, this is the birth of a new species. This is a creation from scientists (and lovers) Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley). The two figured out how to isolate the DNA of various types of animals and morph them into one, new species. The new species is active, healthy, and can even produce medicinal milk. It turns out to be both a scientific and economic wonder.
Clive and Elsa want to take their experiment to the next level: they want to add human DNA. However, the company isn’t looking for scientific breakthroughs, but rather profit, and forces them to continue research on the milk the new creature produces. They go ahead with their experiment anyway. The result is a creature with the face of a human, the body of a small kangaroo, and the skin of a salamander. The clone, named Dren, starts off sweet and innocent enough. Then she turns, quite literally, into a monster.
The film is proceeded by some noteworthy shots, a few corny lines, and a few great thrills. It is a mixture of scientific intrigue and fictional ridiculousness. Despite some flaws, “Splice” is still miles ahead of most sci-fi films released in recent years. It draws upon, rather than steals from, classics.
On that note, the thing I enjoyed most about “Splice” is how inspired it was. Natali is a film lover’s filmmaker. The slow, creeping doom that occurs alongside the speedy development of the creature feels right out of “Alien.” A later scene involves a chase through a dark, snowy, forest reminiscent to the frozen maze chase that occurs in “The Shining.” At one point, a character even shouts “It’s alive!” just like Rosemary mistakenly shouted in joy in “Rosemary’s Baby.” It might just sound like I’m merely throwing out every film reference I can to look cool, but I’m actually throwing out compliments. Natali doesn’t just know great films, but he knows what makes them so great. And those things influence his work in the best way.
Don’t get the impression from this that Natali’s work is nothing but a lot of pop culture reference. He is also a great director for individual reasons. The sci-fi works great because he understands how the sci-fi genre operates. The horror aspects work especially well because he understands how to create real thrills. As usual, it is not about the gore. What is crucial is atmosphere. He can create a moment of suspense either threw loud, overbearing music, or pure silence. One of the most impressive ways that he creates an environment of dread is through very tiny details. The most significant is a light swaying back and forth overhead, as the couple waits to see if there creation has survived.
“Splice” also displays some impressive cinematography. It contributes to the atmosphere as much as the sound and music. Best of all, it doesn’t rely on an unnecessary large amount of shaky cam to try and frighten the viewer. Any horror you might feel comes organically.
As I am not Natali, I can’t say what his true goal was with “Splice.” If it was simply to thrill us and weird us out, then mission accomplished. But if he was looking for something even deeper, which I suspect he was, then he just missed the mark.
At times, I thought “Splice” was going for the “Brave New World” message that there’s a line in science, and sometimes we just shouldn’t toy too much with our own DNA. Then there’s also this whole thing about how science is being ruined by corporate greed. These are themes that have been explored again and again, and I wish “Splice” did it in a slightly more original, and even more three-dimensional way.
The reason these two things don’t work so well might just be because of the weakest aspect of the film: the writing. All of the arguments about the place of science and moral judgement just sound contrived. Such eloquent directing could’ve used much more eloquent writing.
While I obviously appreciated this film as a thriller, I wish Natali had gone and made it a little more satirical. There is one moment in the film (you’ll know it when you see it), that’s so gruesome and unexpected that it ends up being uncomfortably hilarious. Some might find it horrifying, others might find it to be the most genius moment in the entire film.
“Splice” certainly isn’t your average sci-fi horror film, as Natali certainly isn’t your average director. And even though the film falters on several points, it’s hard not to recommend “Splice.” After having to sit through “Robin Hood” and endless “Sex and the City 2″ ads, any actual story is welcome.