Splice is a film with a lot to live up to. Firstly, it comes from Vicenzo Natali, the writer/director of Cube (1997): one of the best horror/sci-fi hybrids in recent memory. Secondly, Splice is Natali’s attempt to revive ‘body-horror’, a horror sub-genre that has been largely dormant since the 1980s.
Recent body-horror offerings have either been laughable CGI-laden efforts or constructed from disastrously low budgets and have therefore never managed to be as uniquely interesting nor as genuinely unsettling as John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) or John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981). Thankfully, Natali’s Splice is an engaging, disquieting and most of all thought-provoking film that asks complex questions about the nature of parenthood, the ethics of medical science and what it is to be human.
Splice concerns young couple and fellow scientists Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) as they attempt to create a genetically modified animal, constructed from the DNA of several existing species, which can be harvested for a protein for use in treatments for various diseases. When they express their desires to splice human DNA into the mix with their superiors, they are met with resistance and Elsa decides to go ahead with the experiment in secret. The result is a human/animal hybrid named ‘Dren’ (Abigail Chu and Delphine Chanéac) with whom both Clive and Elsa begin to form very different bonds; while Elsa instantly treats their creation as a child, Clive is at first convinced Dren should be killed, but becomes enthralled with her as she grows into a sentient being with human feelings. As Clive and Elsa struggle with whether they should treat their creation as a loved one or as an experiment, Dren begins to go through some drastic changes.
It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that Splice’s third act may well concern man’s genetically modified creation turning against him. What is (thankfully) never resolutely explained is whether Dren has always had a potential for violence or whether it was brought out of her by ‘bad parenting’ on behalf of the two scientists. She is unarguably mistreated by her creators, but the film does provide some evidence that violence may be ingrained in her very genes; a metaphor for the nature vs. nurture debate. Is Dren born a monster, or do her ‘parents’ force her into becoming one?
Splice is clearly a film that is very aware of its themes and meanings, from the horrors of parenthood to the dangers of science, but is consciously careful never to give any definitive answers to such questions. While the film seems to quite clearly condemn unethical scientific practices – stem cell research could be seen as an obvious example – Natali has been careful to make sure the couple’s creation itself is not strictly a monster; Dren’s outlandish appearance is at times unsettling, but simultaneously strangely beautiful. Creature designer Amro Attia is to be applauded for creating an appearance for Dren that allows for her to be both an innocent child and a terrifying abomination, to make us question whether or not Dren can truly be considered a sensitive human being or an unpredictable animal.
Perhaps Splice’s only downfall is a very heavy-handed use of Freudian imagery, which should have worked well with the film’s central theme of a relationship between two ‘parents’ and their ‘daughter’. However in welcoming a psychoanalytical reading of the film, Natali makes his Freudian elements far too obvious. Purposefully placed phallic imagery pervades the film’s first act, and Dren even witnesses her very own primal scene while she is being kept in an unused lab. While it is clear to see why such imagery is employed in Splice, at times it simply feels as if Natali is labouring his point.
Fortunately, Freudian imagery aside, Splice has comparably few flaws. The acting from Brody and Polley is excellent as the relationship between their characters begins to crack and fall apart under the strain of parenthood, and the direction is largely commendable. Natali’s film is a cautionary tale of the horrors of parenthood that deserves comparison with Eraserhead (1976) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and also an examination of the dangers of medical science that is nearly capable of standing with the best of body-horror cinema, but somehow manages to fall just short of such masterpieces.