Loco Parentis

Off to Glasgow for the Glasgow Film Festival and Frightfest’s screening of SPLICE, Vincenzo Natali’s sci-fi drama with Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. I enjoyed CUBE, Natali’s debut, on the whole (it makes highly inventive use of limited locations and cast, but those limitations seem to close of the possibility of a more interesting ending, somehow) and his follow-up, CYPHER, a good deal. A phildickian tale of industrial espionage with Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu, it really deserved a bit more attention than it got, even if the plot twists and Northam’s pleasingly weird central perf kind of exclude the audience from full engagement.

NOTHING, Natali’s third feature, is a pretty crashing disappointment, even though his visual skills are much in evidence. The movie’s puppyish desire to please drives it into irksome comedy, and the central premise — the main characters wish the world out of existence and find themselves and their house stranded in a featureless white limbo — is ignored in terms of narrative logic and dramatic development, which means the film really has to try and be funny about, literally, nothing.

But that misfire has proven useful in a way, forcing Natali to add a more kinetic series of tricks to his repertoire, out of that need to make something from NOTHING, and he’s able to shuffle between sparky high-speed mode (montages of weird science) and slow, suspenseful creepiness, in the new SPLICE, a dream project he’s been working on for years. Basically a tale of science-meets-parenthood, it deals with a young couple of brilliant geneticists who splice human and animal DNA together to create Dren, played by Delphine ChanĂ©ac (and young Abigail Chu, and a bunch of CGI), who develops at an accelerated rate (as these things always do), and falls awkwardly between the status of child and experiment for the hitherto childless couple.

The stylistic and genre trappings that inform the film stem mostly from Cronenberg’s THE FLY and Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, with flashes of exec Guillermo Del Toro’s monster movie maudit MIMIC (things in jars). This splicing of different movie worlds (Sarah Polley plays Elsa Castle, a near-anagram of Elsa Lanchester, and Brody plays Clive, named after Colin Clive, both references to James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN films — this cuteness is sustained but fortunately never intrusive) forces me to recall Cronenberg’s verdict on ALIEN: he loved the evolving monster’s life-cycle (of course he did!) but felt that in the last third the movie plunged wholeheartedly into the least interesting potential direction: monster chases girl.

SPLICE seems to have been hard to get made because Natali was genuinely interested in exploring the disturbing emotional possibilities of his story, and he sends tendrils of interest out in a number of fascinating directions. But the perceived need to climax in a monster holocaust effectively amputates most of those possibilities, and it all comes down to conflict, that Holy Grail of the unimaginative. As Olivier Assayas said, lots of American movies start out with interesting ideas, but they usually wind up with a fight in a warehouse. What worlds of weary derision that phrase contains.

Substitute barn for warehouse and you might have SPLICE. And this is a great shame, because the movie explicitly sets out what it’s supposed to be about early on — this child is aging rapidly and will die of its own accord very soon. The scientists who have created her were unable emotionally to face parenthood, but find it thrust upon them, and in the most painful way. They’re far more unprepared for the struggles ahead than most of us would be, since their “offspring” is a previously unknown species with mysterious dietary, emotional and sexual needs. Which makes the set-up perfect for a satire on both parenting and science. The whole second act is rich in this kind of amusing, and sometimes alarming, material.

(Fiona thought it was a shame Natali couldn’t attend, to hear the collective gasp from the audience when the little girl version of Dren scuttles onscreen for the first time in a cute little dress: her sudden quasi-humanity erects a big sign reading “Welcome to Uncanny Valley.”)

There’s also the scientific ethics side — real-life investigators who have raised chimps as children have faced the dilemmas created by taking responsibility for another living thing, and in a sense robbing it of its birthright as a wild animal, substituting the (uncertain) benefits of civilisation and humanity, but never quite delivering the supposed advantages that come with being human. Again, SPLICE evokes all this pretty well.

It’s rather unfair of me to slam Natali for copping out with an action climax — it’s unlikely the film would ever have been made without one. And he does his best to take us into icky moral terrain immediately after the dust has settled. On the plus side, he has fine perfs from his leads (Polley in particular is more natural than you ever expect anybody to be in this kind of movie) and the combination of effects work and performance is stunningly effective in the creature character — for a fraction of the cost, he’s made something a lot more interesting and beautiful than the artificial population of AVATAR. It’s a little unfortunate that Cameron’s megasplurge uses the same eyes-wide-apart design aesthetic for its creatures, but Natali’s beast actually has a better reason for having that look, and Natali is a lot less squeamish about exploiting the squirmy possibilities of xenophilia. Natali’s mascot, David Hewlett, appears again, this time as a corporate sleaze, a role he essays with unseemly relish. Despite my reservations, SPLICE may be the most wholehearted proper science fiction film we see this year.

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18 Responses to “Loco Parentis”

  1. Doh. And there was me thinking that was just a terrible name for a scientist. Saw this at Sundance, straight after another great film, ‘Winter’s Bone’, and it was the best adrenaline shot. The memory of Dren and Clive waltzing is a fond one.

  2. Nice review btw.

  3. Sounds great – I’m with you on Cube and Cypher (the best anti-Bond-movie ever made) and Nothing passed me by, thankfully. Been looking forward to Splice for ages and I’m looking forward to it even more now. It’s worth looking for Natali’s student film online – it’s all set in a malfunctioning, possibly malevolent, lift, and from what I remember, screws an enormous amount of material from a tiny premise.

  4. Ingulphus Says:

    The last photo is creepily similar to the baby in Eraserhead, perhaps crossed with a seal.

  5. Natali’s lift movie, Elevated, was made purely to demonstrate that he could make Cube work, and it apparently succeeded admirably. I look forward to seeing it.

    Yeah, Spike the Eraserhead baby is one possible source. The way the critter gradually becomes more human in this movie is delightfully unsettling.

  6. I’m reminded of last night as I walked from my car into my building. I parked just around the corner on a side street and as I was about to round the corner I saw what I thought was a cat, fully lit by the street lamp above. It was in fact a possum, plump and furry, standing still aside the wall a few short feet away, can’t mistake the tail. For a few seconds I was still, and it was still, then as I walked on he rounded the corner, and as I rounded the same corner I could see it in the shrubs watching me. I just kept going. The critter’s face above is very reminiscent of last night’s encounter.

  7. Sadly I’ve not seen Nothing or Splice yet (though even your downbeat assessment of Nothing makes it sound great!) but I really like Natali’s other films very much.

    Elevated is an excellent short film – squeezing every ounce of tension out of the ‘who can we trust? is he telling an unbelievable truth or just a raving maniac?’ premise that is set up between the three occupants of the lift (if there we only two, would it have worked out differently?), eventually becoming less about the fantastical and more about instinctual perceptions winning out in times of crisis. The only aspect of the short that disappoints (and this ties into the ‘fight in a warehouse’ argument) is the very final twist which too explicitly resolves the hanging narrative.

    This might itself have been why Cube has a very ambiguous ending (which of course gets totally over explained in the Cube Zero prequel), about the nature of what lies outside the Cube. I thought the first film was a fantastic piece of work, but then I’ve always been a sucker for confined space films involving death traps which involve solving puzzles (So I also quite like Fermat’s Room!)

    Following on from my Inland Empire comments a little while ago, Cube and Cypher are interesting variations on the ‘virtual world’ concept. Cube errs more towards The Thirteenth Floor/World On A Wire ‘your whole world is a prison and while you may fight against it likely the only escape comes in various forms of death’.

    Cypher feels sort of Lynchian or even Cronenbergian (Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch in particular), and with a deep connection to elements of Total Recall (which Cronenberg was of course initially involved in), in that the character has before the film starts created a whole persona for themselves as an ‘average Joe’ to eliminate their old identity, yet flashes of their ‘true self’ subconsciously compells them to fall into their old modes of behaviour.

    Based on the above films I do not yet think Natali has broken free from heavy influence from other film trends with a truly original concept (and your description of Splice has worrying similarities to Species!), but having said that he often brings something fascinating to the familiar tropes that are used which always makes his films worth spending time with.

  8. Splice has a little in common with Species but it’s MUCH more interestingly developed. Nothing is maybe his most distinctive concept to date but sadly it isn’t carried off.

    I quite liked Fermat’s Room too — it isn’t really clever or surprising enough to live in the memory, but it’s perfectly enjoyable on its own terms.

  9. I love the possum story! My parents have a fox that visits their garden. Something about wild animals in the city feels surreal and exciting.

  10. If you’re near a river as in my city and it’s not too industrialized, wild animals making a guest appearance are very common. Nothing much comes our way (I live on a big hill and outside of being inundated by squirrels, a lizard is about the most exotic thing I’ve witnessed), but my friends in the lowlands by said river find possums, skunks, snakes, and the occasional deer often. Peacocks are rare, but show up once in a while. Nature Note: Squirrels are destructive little bastards. They’ve chewed holes in the eaves of my house to get into the attic for shelter. The person that called them rats with a press agent was right.

  11. Rats with fluffy tails, I’ve heard them called that as well. Foxes are beautiful creatures, I’d love to see one in any context, I never have. There’s been news recently of coyotes spotted in Grosse Pointe, a posh conservative old-money suburb east of Detroit. They actually carry off small dogs as meal fodder. Just the thought of coyotes in Grosse Pointe tickles me.

  12. I’d just settle for a group of feral cats. The lazy housecats we have around here wouldn’t consider catching a squirrel. They just kind of stare at them while the squirrel chatters away in alarm. Funniest domestic animal story: A cat broke into the crawlspace under my house, and was chasing something, probably another cat. Wham! Cat rammed his head against the furnace, and the was a pained “rowr” coming from the furnace area. Happened about a week ago.

  13. The thought of coyotes carrying off miniature poodles has a kind of natural justice to it.

    Our cat has some vestigial hunting instincts, but they’re defective — she’ll stalk a bird, but end up going off in the wrong direction, sneaking up on nothing. And she’ll sneak into a room where she’s not wanted, and even when we talk to her and make it obvious we’ve detected her, she goes on solemnly creeping, belly close to the ground, fooling nobody.

  14. I’ve had one yard dog with good hunting skills. It bagged two birds, a squirrel, and a rat. Another was a sex maniac. He would break through the crawlspace to the outside for amorous encounters late at night, and appear at the gate the next morning to be let in for breakfast. He knew how to get out, but not how to get back in. House dogs of mine seem to like the chase, but they don’t know what to do once they’ve caught up with the animal.

  15. I’ve just seen this tonight! I’m glad I forgot as much about your great review as I had (apart from its reservations, general positive tone – and the mention of Cypher which I love) because heavens, did I find this full of surprises. Right now I really think this is one of the best monster movies I’ve ever seen. It was so FRENCH! The enfant sauvage and the parallels with parenting were entertaining enough, but Dren’s sexual maturity and Elsa’s descent into revenge were also staggeringly well handled and, well, sexy. And I didn’t share your reservations about the climax – that the sex change should morph the genre mid-film from “Page-Turner”-like psyhcothriller into basic slasher pic was itself interesting, a valid and tragic development. (Come on…. “Inside…” that’s good horror). This wasn’t just better than Avatar (there’s no comparison between the Toontown creatures there and Dren here) it pretty much put District 9 to shame as well (whose generic, goodie-gets-the-baddie’s-gun-type violence completed evaded the questions raised at the start.) And perhaps most satisfying was the feeling that here was not simply “everything thrown into the mix” as it were but simply a strong, old idea fully explored in every direction. Since Cronenberg isn’t making stuff like this any more I’m cock-a-hoop Splice is now out there, and that the cinema I saw it in was packed (with jaws very pleasingy hitting the floor.)

  16. Great, glad to hear it’s doing well.

    I have a copy of Inside knocking around here, but something about the circumstances in which it was previously recommended put me off seeing it. Must get over that.

  17. Sorry “Inside” was a quote from the film. But yes.

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