There is a moment near the end of Splice when you see the creature in all its frightening glory, this odd hybrid with just enough human to have won your empathy for the majority of the film, and it is about to exact its revenge for mistreatment, when you finally understand what Mary Shelley was trying to tell us in the 19th century: Playing God is a bad idea.
Vincenzo Natali is one of Canada’s great unsung science fiction filmmakers. His films such as Cube and Nothing are an odd yet entertaining and thought-provoking mix of comedy and terror, and probably because he’s Canadian, Natali looks at one of the most controversial topics in the scientific community, human cloning, and creates an intimate science fiction horror film. Indeed, the larger politics and almost expected scenes with protestors screaming about God and the Bible on Parliament Hill, or great debates between scientists and politicians (which one might see in a Hollywood film) are missing. Natali takes the politics to the family level, focusing on the creators and their strange creation. It is this kind of intimacy that is necessary in order to understand an issue as large as cloning. (For the literary version, I recommend Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which also achieves this kind of intimacy.) This is certainly his most gorgeous looking film to date, and by forgoing the usual cheap thrills of monster films and often over-the-top Hollywood-style science fiction films that rarely question the status quo and instead make completely unbelievable works, Splice asks the truly hard questions about the future of science and how it will change what it means to be human. It’s Natali’s best work since Cube.
Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley play Clive and Elsa, a husband-and-wife scientific mastermind team who specialize in mixing up the DNA of various animals in order to create new pharmaceutical products to cure humanity’s ailments. While they have approached their employers about the possibility of throwing some human DNA into the mix, no one will give them the funding. Elsa talks a reluctant Clive into a secret experiment: they will secretly combine the DNA of several animals with human DNA. Low and behold, their experiment works and an artificial womb gives birth to Dren, a human-bird-horse-I don’t know what else hybrid. Clive and Elsa try to hide her in a storage room, but when rumors start to circulate, they take her to an old barn in the Ontario countryside. Somehow, the huge barn becomes more of a prison than the tiny lab.
Dren is quite a unique movie monster; her proximity to humans makes her both a sympathetic character, and also a chilling one. Through her, Natali is asking questions about cloning that are rarely broached: as clones would allegedly begin as small offspring, who will raise them and how? Do we treat them as children, or experiments? Clive and Elsa first bond with Dren as parents, but in the end they are not her parents, but her creators – and there is a world of difference between these two roles. The former is nurturing in order to allow the offspring to survive on its own; the latter is controlling, wanting their own vision to supercede any independence of the creation. Perhaps this is why Nietzsche said that God is dead; creations are more trouble than they are worth (creators too). How can you separate your emotions from your work when the thing you create is alive and sentient? How can you hope to control it? Are there things that science simply should not do?
Natali keeps the film clicking along at a good pace, and is careful not to indulge in more extreme character actions or unbelievable situations. He treads the fine line of a film that is just believable enough to get the audience’s attention, and sci-fi enough for us to think this could never happen. Or could it? Perhaps it already is in some corner of the world.