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 Chanéac (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.