Frankenstein author Mary Shelley could not have foretold that her gothic tale of an errant scientist who creates a man/monster out of the limbs of dead bodies would become a harbinger of things to come with the emergence in the 21st century of the science of genetic engineering. Instead of stitching together body parts, today’s scientists directly manipulate the DNA of organisms. Their work has given the world genetically altered vegetables; “designer” hypoallergenic cats and dogs; super cows; and most famously, the world’s first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep
Vincenzo Natali’s film Splice takes us into the world of genetic engineering but not in the manner one might expect of your typical science fiction feature. Instead of presenting a thought-provoking, cautionary tale about the evils of meddling in God’s territory, Natalie opts for a singular approach that moves the story away from science fiction and into the realm of a dark and disturbing fairytale. I applaud him for taking the risk. The story does cast a spell over you; unfortunately, you won’t remain enchanted for very long.
Fresh from their success in creating a new hybrid organism from the splicing of the DNA of various animals, biochemists Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are eager to continue their groundbreaking experiments. However, the pharmaceutical big wig paying the bills (Joan Chorot) is less interested in funding more research and development than she is in making the couples’ discovery turn a profit, so the company cuts off their funding to go forward with production.
On the personal side, Clive thinks it’s time he and Elsa become parents. Elsa’s not ready to be a mother. She thinks they have more pressing concerns — namely, creating a new hybrid by introducing human DNA into the mix — financial, ethical and legal prohibitions notwithstanding. Clive is reluctant, but Elsa refuses to be stopped. Her determination suggests hidden disturbances are driving her that even she may be unconscious of.
The couple proceeds in secret with their experiment, and their efforts produce “Dren” (nerd spelled backwards), a creature that resembles a cross between a seal and a chicken. Clive and Elsa go from objective scientists to doting parents.
Ironically, with Dren Elsa eagerly embraces the part of mother, a role she previously claimed she didn’t want. When Dren’s rapid development makes it impossible to keep her concealed at the lab, Elsa and Clive move her to Elsa’s old family farm in the woods. There, the three of them settle down to play happy family.
Splice operates like an extended metaphor for Freudian family dynamics, specifically, the drama of mother/daughter competition, and father/daughter incest. The gigantic birth chamber in which Dren was conceived is analogous to Elsa’s womb. Metaphorically, it takes on the job of surrogate mother for the developing egg, a job Elsa doesn’t want literally. The whole process becomes even more psychologically complicated when the source of the human DNA is revealed.
As Dren develops into a beautiful mythological-like creature that has fish gills and can sprouts wings, trouble arises in happy-family land. What was once a cute and easily controlled child has become an individual with a mind and will of her own. Dren, the daughter, has become competition for Elsa, the mother, and temptation for Clive, the father.
The graphic sex scene between Clive and the adult Dren (Delphine Chanéac) elicited different responses from the audience at the screening I attended. Some viewers were clearly put off by it. The fan boys loved it. Others, including myself, just laughed out loud.
The scene I found most disturbing concerns the manner in which Elsa chooses to remedy Dren’s sexual transgression. Or perhaps I should say punish. She straps Dren onto a table, exposes her body needlessly, and then excises the stinger (which emerges during sex) from Dren’s tail with the cold precision of a detached surgeon. The procedure is nothing less than genital mutilation, made all the more horrific for all it was perpetrated against the daughter at the hands of her mother.
Splice is a fascinating Freudian nightmare that looks at the way in which childhood wounds can compel people to re-enact in the present the dysfunctional family drama of the past. Elsa, the child of an abusive mother, becomes in adulthood the abuser. However, for all of Natali’s ambition to deliver a story that straddles the elements of science-fiction thriller, psychological drama, and kinky fairy tale, his work doesn’t hold together. Too often I found myself laughing at events and dialog that were clearly not meant to be funny. The director couldn’t find a way to tie the underlying complex psycho/sexual themes together with the plot. Nor could he rise above the story’s goofier elements which eventually overshadowed the serious and compelling aspects of the story.