Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 04, 2010 5:25 pm 
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"It's alive" -- again

Lisa Schwartzbaum of Entertainment Weekly enthusiastically describes Splice as "A cheeky, great-looking, thoughtfully loopy creature feature about the lure and dangers of cutting-edge gene splicing." Somewhere near the other extreme we have Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, who calls the movie "a thoroughly repulsive science fiction-horror flick that slicks up its B-movie tawdriness with high-gloss production values and two otherwise classy stars." They're both right, at least if "thoughtfully loopy" means silly, but not completely dumb. And both production values and promotional possibilities are indicated by Guillermo del Toro's name in the executive producer slot. Despite the charismatic stars, however, when it's all balanced out, Splice has some virtues for genre followers, but otherwise is unexceptional.

This movie gets both repulsive and preposterous in the first few scenes. Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) are a biochemist couple who do experimental gene splicing for a Big Pharma corporation. They create two great repulsive worm-like things they call Ginger and Fred, wrinkly, gnarly abominations like faceless and limbless pigs, which are supposed to be the wonderful new source of a wealth of proteins and enzymes usable for medicines. Ginger and Fred look like some CGI gone horribly wrong. Against their corporate boss's prohibitions, Elsa sneaks off and goes one step further: she grows a critter that blends mammal, fish, bird, and human DNA. The thing that comes out, exploding and spewing disgusting fluids, of course, looks like a giant man-eating tadpole, or a flying snake. In time it gives birth to a little fledgling that grows up into a kind of bald, sweet-faced lesbian on spindly bird legs and Dren, as they name her, grows quickly from a child into a squeaky adult that can't seem to speak but can spell out words like "boring" and "outside" in Scrabble letters. The monster catch: Elsa's and Clive's critters not only slide back and forth between species. They also tend to switch genders unexpectedly. And since they have sharp little poisonous spider tails, they're dangerous when aroused.

Dren (played as an adult by French film actress Delphine Chanéac) is scary and dangerous, but also kind of cuddly. At first the childless Elsa develops an unprofessionally motherly approach, but then Dren grows up with breathtaking speed into (as Variety's Justin Chang puts it) "a cross between Gollum and Sinnead O'Connor," with a pretty face and, at times, a winning smile. You can see where this is going. When this movie was shown as a midnight feature in the San Francisco film festival the festival director Graham Leggett said it had "the best inter-species sex scene ever." Dr. Frankenstein's "monster," where all this came from, longed to be accepted as human. It didn't expect to have sex with people, but this is another era, with a different and greater focus on sex, morality, and economics. Only a post-millennial movie would end with one of the scientists being offered an unbelievably large check for their taboo-flouting experiments.

Splice is Sci-Fi that's scary and gross-out, though in an era when CGI allows spatter to be moved to an exponential level (even the low-budget District 9 outdoes Splice both in species-shifting and yucky-fluid spraying), the main thing it has to offer is the frisson of copulation with a non-human. And thanks to CGI, "she" can go amphibian, spout wings and retract them, and change sexes. I guess Adrien Brody, with his aquiline features and long body, has an edge of the alien himself. But when he puts on a record and slow-dances with Dren one evening while Elsa's away, is it gross-out, titillating, or just plain silly? Or maybe it's the call of the abyss? All these things at once, this is the film's best moment. Otherwise, how is this any better than the Spierig brother's zombie movie of earlier this year, Daybreakers? That too had a couple of A-listers, Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe, raising the B-picture tone. And with its dark zombie-infested future world re-imagined in Forties noir style and its own bloody explosions and scary flying monsters, it was just as imaginatively engaging.

Splice is thin stuff. What it's got is a couple of actors in Brody and Polley who make their relationship come to life. And Polley is a little bit scary herself. That's all.

Modern Frankenstein stories lack the melancholy of the old movies that stayed close to the original Mary Shelley story. Elsa and Clive don't seem to care a bit that they're messing with God's scheme of things. They're just worried to death they'll get found out -- and maybe lose their jobs. Other than Brody and Polley's, there are no characters of more than minimal depth in Splice; Dren comes across as a creature more of voracious appetites than feeling. Clive has his brother Gavin (Brandon McGibbon), a lower-level scientist at the lab, who of course finds out what the couple are up to and makes things more complicated.

Splice got a jump-start for its critical rep by debuting at Sundance. Graham Leggett put his finger on its main selling-point. Sure, in horror/Sci-Fi terms it has two good selling points: decent actors and production values (but is either a necessity for the genre?) and sex. First Dren craves sweets, then she wants Clive. Then, like all cinematic human efforts to tamper with Mother Nature in the movies, things go haywire. I'm not saying this movie doesn't deliver, only that there's nothing profound about it.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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