Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Splice the Movie - Paradise Fail

This is my take on some of the ideas touched upon in the recently released science-fiction movie, Splice. Do not mistake it for a review. It does contain spoilers.

"Just imagine what we could learn!"  With this seductive, and in some ways desperate, plea Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) implores her partner in love and in science and, potentially, in crime, Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody), to join her in the tasting of the tree of the knowledge of trans-human possibility.  Even as the plot of Splice is sparked to life by this Faustian offer, it is already clear that this prideful duo of rock-star genetic engineers is heading for a most certain fall.
So, in some respects, Vincenzo Natali's serviceable sci-fi / horror flick is a variation of the story of The Exile from Eden, with a Generation X Eve and Adam arrogating the power of God to themselves, tampering with the primal forces of nature and discovering in the process that the knowledge of good and evil tends to be almost exclusively about the latter.  Paradise fail, to use the vernacular.

Splice works also as an allegory of sorts for the trials of contemporary parenting: the agonizing over whether to have children and, once they appear, how to fit them into demanding professional lives; the hard-to-dispel worry that the sins of our fathers, and of our mothers, as painfully recognized in the flaws in our own upbringing, will be visited upon our own sons and daughters; and that we, heaven forfend, will "become" our own parents and thus be compelled to repeat the mistakes they made with us.

To make matters worse, there is the additional burden peculiar to the current crop of moms and dads, that is that children not only be reared, but also, in some sense, perfected; that parents are duty-bound to orchestrate the development of their progeny, even in utero, so that they may emerge as Baby Einsteins.  Little do Elsa and Clive realize that all their prenatal fretting and fussing will result in something more akin to Baby Frank-einstein.

Which brings us to the main storyline of Splice, an updating of the Mary Shelly gothic-horror, proto-science-fiction classic.  It is interesting to recall that Shelley's Frankenstein was subtitled "The Modern Prometheus".  Its protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, had not set out to create a monster, but to benefit humanity by conquering death.  Elsa and Clive, our post-modern Prometheans, somewhat less ambitiously, have set their sights on the conquest of disease - diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and the like - yet they nonetheless reap the unintended - and unwanted - consequences that are payback for their act of hubris.

The morally questionable experiments central to both the novel and the film are quite similar, new life is assembled out of inanimate biological bits and pieces.  Shelley's homo novus is cobbled together from freshly-exhumed human body parts; in Splice it is the strands of DNA from disparate species that are woven to craft a new being, with human genes, bearing the taint of the propensity for predation as well as, it appears, that of original sin, tossed into the mix.  Unlike Victor Frankenstein, though, who is thoroughly disgusted by his creation and abandons it in remorse, Elsa and Clive respond with a confused mixture of caring and revulsion, uncertain as the story progresses whether to nurture or to kill their new child.

Splice adds a new twist to the complicated relationship between the scientists and their creature, and that is the - sometimes mutual - feeling of sexual desire.  It's not clear what writer-director Natali intends by this unexpected turn, which is disturbing more because of its implications of pedophilia and incest than the violation of a taboo having to do with inter-species love. Perhaps it represents the ultimate table-turning comeuppance for its "parents", Elsa and Clive, in a concrete "who's your daddy?" demonstration of dominance by their genetically misbegotten offspring.   Or maybe it is the pretext for a Splice sequel, as suggested by a Rosemary's Baby moment at the end of the movie.  It looks like we'll have to wait and see.

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Splice the Movie - Paradise Fail by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Ernie Croot said...

That's nice analysis of the film.


I can't say I quite enjoyed the film; in fact, I don't think it was meant to be enjoyed. It was meant to disturb, and it did a good job at that.

A few random thoughts on technical points from the film: The computer and screen they used in the film to do the ``splicing'' was fairly ``low-tech'' (monochrome green screen); the biotech was the only ``high-tech'' in the film. They talk about how Dren developed like an embryo, but out of the womb... and you see how her/his eyes start to drift together as the film progresses... and interestingly, eyes that are far apart (and on either side of the head) are typical of ``prey animals'', whereas eyes that are close together are more typical of predators. Lastly, the wing patterning of Dren kind of reminded me of Archaeopteryx.

Marc Merlin said...

Thanks, Ernie,

Now that you mention it, I do recall the low-tech, green-on black computer display. I take this kind of retro presentation to be a nod to "The Matrix", which wisely chose not to pointlessly chase technological trends and to stick with "timeless", tried-and-true character graphics, although with a vastly expanded character set.

It seems that low-tech displays now are employed in movies, oddly enough, to indicate highly sophisticated users, in a kind of "we don't need no stinkin' graphics" way. While the ordinary user is busy pointing and clicking, the guru has opened a command-line interface and is typing away.

I also noticed the showcasing of high-tech biotech equipment that you mentioned. Brand names were so visible that some sort of exchange - product placement fees or barter for equipment loan and consultation services - must have been agreed upon between the filmmakers and the manufacturers. It's an interesting use of product placement, not as direct to consumer advertising, but as a way for these companies to cultivate status and have something glitzy to add to their annual reports.

Dren's development does make for a interesting study. It would be fun to sit down and look at a progression of photos of her from the movie. No doubt her features are offered as "quotes" from evolutionary and developmental biology, maybe even including Archaeopteryx. (I'd have to take another look.)

What's odd about this sort of CGI enterprise is that the attention to detail is, to a large extent, lost on the general audience; it's more like the "Easter eggs" planted in software to be discovered, at leisure, by aficionados. It suggests a variation of the age-old craft tradition of signing / watermarking. I am only surprised that the green-shades overseeing the budgets of these movies allow the techies so much latitude with their (expensive) personalization.

We need to see the next science fiction movie together, assuming something worthwhile comes out anytime soon.