Friday, April 28, 2017

Mad for Science - SPLICE

The recent Science March against Trump got me thinking about cinema’s tremulous relationship with the subject of science.  The classic Frankenstein story warning against the hubris of man reaching farther than he should has been retold in hundreds, if not thousands, of times in film.  In all the variations, the cautionary tale is the same, do not meddle in God’s domain.  The thing is, deep down, we all kind of want to meddle in God’s domain.  The mad scientist routine may come off a bit extreme in the movies, but the underlying curiosity and desire to improve our world is fundamental to humanity’s progress.  Or it may simply be the desire to make cool stuff.  

Take the JURASSIC PARK movies, for instance.  Yes, they always end in bloody rampages, but do you think for one second if scientists really could churn out dinosaurs we wouldn’t be demanding they do so?  Say what you want about the quality of JURASSIC WORLD, it is the only logical extension of where we would take this.  Rich pet owners would be clamoring for the dino equivalent of the labradoodle.

Even more pointedly, look at THE TERMINATOR.  All of us know the story of artificial intelligent robots rising up to destroy humanity, but that doesn’t keep us from barreling towards creating them.  Because we also saw STAR WARS, and who doesn’t want their own R2D2?  Except one that actually says words.  Nobody wants to learn beep language.

So every time we see one of these grave warnings of science run amok, we think, “Boy, it really turned out badly for those guys, they made such bad decisions…but if I was doing it, things would have been awesome!”  Which brings us to Vincenzo Natali’s 2009 super creepy sci-fi experiment, SPLICE, which shows the horrifying ethical and moral consequences of genetically manipulating human DNA on a whim, even though it is still a pretty cool idea.  

The Capsule: 

Clive (Adrian Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), a pair of adorable hipster scientists, have become famous for genetically engineering a less adorable pair of medicine producing love slugs for the giant pharmaceutical company they work for.  When the skittish, profit minded execs shoots down their idea of introducing human DNA into the mix, they go rogue and run their abomination of nature pet-project in secret.  What comes out of the mechanical womb is no simple love slug, but a freaky, kind of cute, peanut head monster with rat legs and a deadly stinger tail.  Clive wants to destroy it before they get caught, but since its rapid growth cycle means it will only live for a short time, Elsa convinces him to keep it around and study it.  Plus, Elsa has bonded with the little ragamuffin, despite it trying to kill her that one time (maybe two).  As the little horror grows, human characteristics and appearance become more dominate, turning the creation, now named Dren (Delphine Chanéac), into less of a pet as a daughter.  The pressure of maintaining this messed up family dynamic begins to weigh heavily on Clive and Elsa, especially as Dren’s behavior becomes  harder and harder to control.

SPLICE exists in a wonderful fantasy world where smart is sexy and scientists are rock stars (and Wired is the equivalent to Rolling Stone).  Clive and Elsa strut around the lab like they were the nerd versions of Prince and Madonna.  Their lab coats are covered in patches, badges, and pins.  They are the cool kids with the biggest brains and they know it.  Even Clive’s younger brother wannabe, Gavin (Brandon McGibbon) is trying to get in on it by sporting a serious Jack White look.  They should all have guitars slung over their shoulders, or at least keytars.  

They even have a square, killjoy supervisor, Barlow (David Hewlett), who is pretty much their manager.  He is always trying to make them to get serious and focus on the money making love slug classics, the arena rock of science, instead of running wild with their experimental new stuff that people don’t understand. 

Barlow is a drag, but he is not entirely wrong.  Their company, Newstead, holds a gala, Grammy-like presentation where Clive and Elsa (introduced as “The Splicemasters”) are supposed to impress all the investors and shareholders with their progress.  They have been so busy with their secret crime against nature, though, that they failed to notice the female love slug spontaneously changed to male.  When the slugs are put together in a big glass tank, they sprout giant hooks and start tearing each other apart.  As if that wasn’t disastrous enough, the tank tips over and sends gallons of blood straight into the fancy dressed crowd like they were in the splash zone at Sea World.
Afterwards, Barlow’s smugness is palpable when he takes over the lab and hands Clive a plain white unadorned lab coat to wear.  There is no room for fun in science, you two!

They still wind up shirking their day jobs, because Dren (nerd spelled backwards in case you didn’t get it, and you would, because they literally spell it out for you) is obviously much more interesting than the love slugs.  Her evolution is fascinating, if kinda absurd.  She begins life, traumatically birthed from the artificial womb in the lab, as a big, fleshy tadpole with a stinger that almost kills Elsa.  Later in the same scene she sheds her skin and becomes a hairless, armless kangaroo rat with a head like a peanut (or penis, depending on the angle).  After much tension, Elsa calms the creature down and bonds with it.  The sequence is great because it starts off as an homage to the med lab scene from ALIEN, and then seamlessly transitions into an homage to the med lab scene from ALIENS. It covers all the med lab bases.
Dren’s next stage is even weirder, because she transforms from a freaky pet into a super creepy little girl, but one with dog legs, three fingered hands, and eyes on the side her head, which also looks like an ass.  Elsa dresses her in a pretty blue dress, which just makes her that much more horrifying.  The fact that her intellectual development is accelerated to the same pace as her physical development, and that she still has that venomous stinger tail, should worry Elsa, but she still acts like she is working with a particularly clever chimpanzee.  Even when Dren attacks the eavesdropping Gavin, Elsa just scolds her like a toddler.  “Bad Dren, no trying to murder Daddy’s brother! Go sit in time out!”  I’m paraphrasing.

Dren has the most obvious and dramatic evolution, but Brody and Polley’s characters go through an extensive transformation of their own.  The story is as much an analogy of how becoming parents can change people and their relationship as it is about the dangers of hubris.  It becomes clear that Clive and Elsa really shouldn’t be parents, not to a normal kid, and especially not to deadly superhuman abomination of science.  

Elsa specifically did not want to have children because her mother was an abusive nutcase and she feared she might have inherited the bad mommy gene.  Her fears were justified.  When Dren is still a messed up mutant looking little girl, everything was fine.  Elsa was patient and encouraging.  But the more human-like Dren becomes, the colder and harsher Elsa treats her.  She doesn’t deal with Dren’s teenaged (counting in genetic freak years) rebellion very well.  At one point, after Dren has done something particularly nasty out of spite, Elsa loses it and goes totally mad scientist, tying Dren to a table and amputating her stinger.  She is not getting a “World’s Greatest Mom” mug for Christmas.

Clive is hardly any better.  When Dren is in peanut monster stage, he just wants to kill her.  When she changes into a creepy little girl, he… well, he still mostly wants to kill her.  Once she enters her third stage, things really get complicated.  See, she still has crazy backwards legs, three fingered hands, and unsettlingly wide set eyes, but she is now played by an adult actress and, as weird as she is, she’s also, um, kind of sexy.  Sci-fi sexy, like the hot alien at the space bar.  So, yeah, Clive no longer wants to kill her.  

He does seem to develop a genuine, non-creepy affection for her.  There is a touching scene at the secluded barn where they are keeping her when Clive stops her from flying away (oh yeah, she has wings now, too) by telling her that they love her.  It’s just the emotional connection she was looking for.  Dren is in a seriously uncomfortable daddy faze after that.

Things become even more awkward when Clive realizes Dren was created with Elsa’s own DNA.  So she’s kind of like Elsa’s daughter, or half-sister, or something.  I don’t know, the whole genetic splicing thing is a bit confusing.  I’m pretty sure that makes her biological father a love slug.  In any case, Clive is essentially her step dad, so it’s really messed up when she seduces him and he can’t make it thirty seconds before giving in and having sex with her on the barn floor.  Maybe it’s not quite Woody Allen level messed up, but it’s pretty damn bad.

Of course, none of this can compete with the enormously, astonishingly fucked up ending.  Um, [spoiler].  Clive and Elsa come to the decision that their dysfunctional family unit isn’t working and Dren cannot continue to exist.  They head to the barn, but she seems to have saved them the trouble of killing her by dying naturally.  Except she isn’t really dead.  Taking a cue from her love slug dad, Dren is really in stasis, metamorphosing from female to male (Dran?).  Now, a female aberration of nature is a handful, but a male one is real trouble.  He kills Barlow (no big loss), snatches Gavin, and flies off with him into the woods.  Clive and Elsa get separated, Dren finds Elsa, and suddenly it becomes THE LAST SPLICE ON THE LEFT.  Clive stops the assault by impaling rapist Dren with a stick, and Elsa puts him down with a rock, but she hesitates before delivering the final blow when Dren looks up at her with a “why, Mommy?” expression.   This gives Dren just enough time to sting Clive to death before getting his head caved in.  Yeah, that went dark really fast.  

But wait, it’s not over yet.  Flash forward to Elsa’s thousand yard stare as she’s getting a huge payout from the head of Newstead for providing them with a specimen of this new, very profitable lifeform.  Elsa stands up, revealing the specimen she is selling is her monster daughter/son’s child which she is now pregnant with.  Yay science!

Even though Natali shows that science can have terrifying and deadly consequences, much like he portrayed with technology in the brilliant debut, CUBE, I don’t think he is coming down against it.  After all, as the head of Newstead says, millions of people could benefit from the medical advancements gained from harvesting Elsa’s beastly offspring.  It just needs to be handled correctly.  I think the ultimate message of SPLICE, and of most Frankenstein variations, is that we don’t need to fear science, only respect it.  Consider the ramifications.  And for God’s sake, don’t fuck it on the barn floor. 

C Chaka

No comments:

Post a Comment