I took a friend to see Splice on opening night, at the Court Street Theater in Brooklyn, where crowds regularly hoot, holler, and shout “Oh no he didn’t!” In short, the perfect venue for a science fiction-horror-sub nuclear family satire-hybrid. Nobody in those stadium seats knew what had hit them.
“You’re kidding!” I shouted toward the end, furious at the director for going there, and also stunned, that a guy who could write such whip-sharp dialogue would take his characters the direction he chose. It’s a dark, godless, place. But maybe that’s what they deserve.
Splice concerns a high power hipster couple, Elsa and Clive (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley), who’ve got a bad case of arrested development. They make the cover of Wired Magazine when they splice together a new species that looks sort of like a huge, skin-covered Tribble. Only these Tribbles, a mated pair just like our own Clive and Elsa (the symbolism!), produce disease-curing proteins which The Company, NERD, hopes to patent and mass-produce for profit. Our lovely Clive and Elsa have no moral quandaries with cloning; it’s fun, and their salaries pay for lots of cool things, like rent, ridiculous plaid suits, a bright red tie donned by Elsa, and a crazy-ass clown car that in hipster land, is so bad it’s good. They’re pissed, however, that NERD won’t green light their next project, the creation of a similar species, using human DNA for the first time.
Elsa, the relentless, ball-busting Frankenstein of the duo, convinces Clive to help her splice and incubate human hybrid despite direct orders from the boss—a skinny foreign woman who sounds kind of like Boris’ Natasha. Elsa and Clive plan to abort the new species before it’s born (who needs moral dilemmas?), but their plans go awry. Dren (nerd backwards; also children) is born.
Though Elsa has long refused to get pregnant, her maternal lady parts quickly squirt her full of crazy, and she’s suddenly in love with the cute little thing, which is unnerving, since, once again, she’s got no remorse for having created it. Dren is aging at an accelerated rate, and will live her short, possibly painful life in captivity, as a secret. Much like the other Frankenstein’s monster, it’s got no love to call its own.
By now, Clive’s reservations surface, and we learn he’s not the total jerk that Elsa has proven to be. But, like his brother observes, he can’t say no to his girl. Even if his girl is really mean, and looks like she might shotput him down the halls of NERD the second he voices his own opinion. Props to director Vincenzo Natali for making the dynamics between these two believable, and wincingly painful.
Onward. Clive and Elsa hide Dren in the basement. They give her a little girl’s dress to wear, and as she grows, she appears increasingly human, only smarter, stronger, and less predictable. She has a poison-spewing stinger for a tail, after all. When Dren gets sick, Clive shoves her under a tub of water. It’s unclear whether he’s trying to put the monster out of her misery (and rescue Elsa from la-la, pretend mommy-land), or he knows that Dren actually has gills, and needs to submerge in order to survive. He swears by the latter, but I vote the former.
Onward into really creepy land. The couple’s relationship degenerates. They move Dren to Elsa’s deceased mother’s farm, and lock her in the barn, where she’s free to swim, wear dresses, and sleep by herself in a dirty pile of hay. Sounds about right, once we see that Elsa’s mom was a genuine nut job, and Elsa’s old bedroom contains a dirty old bucket and a mattress full of holes. At this point, I’m wondering about the time Clive and Elsa had unprotected sex, and hoping it was unproductive. Elsa as a human mom is terrifying. I realize that this movie suddenly got really scary, and not for the reasons I expected. Very cool.
Meanwhile, Dren is reaching sexual maturity. She’s gorgeous, in a kangaroo kind of way, and falling in love with Clive, who has come to love her back, like a daughter. This sits badly with mean Elsa, who takes away Dren’s pet cat, and ultimately, does much worse. Things really degenerate. The sub-nuclear family explodes in a wincing, grit-your-teeth, can’t help but shout, “Oh no you didn’t!” kind of way.
****SPOILER WARNING: The next section is a summary of the ending, and some notes on what it meant to me****
Highlight the text to read.
****A quick summary:
We learn that Dren’s human DNA comes from Elsa, which is why Clive is starting to have funny feelings for his would-be daughter… The female Tribble turns male, and attacks its male mate, which bodes badly for Dren’s future development. Dren kills her pet cat, so Elsa castrates Dren by cutting off her stinger. She’s good at castration, which isn’t surprising. Using Dren’s live tissue, Elsa solves the mystery of the secret protein for NERD, proving that she’s a better scientist than hubby.
Meanwhile, while Elsa’s at work, Dren and Clive have sex. Somehow, Dren knows exactly what to do, and has none of those pesky virgin problems—probably her rabbit DNA, going manifest. What’s nuts about this scene is that it’s shocking, but seems right in the context of Elsa and Clive’s world. As he later says in his own defense, “we changed the rules.” The audience is willing to forgive him. Anything to punish ball-busting, bad mother Elsa.
In the end, Dren morphs into a male, and goes bananas. (S)he attacks and kills some people, including Clive, and rapes Elsa. Elsa, the only survivor, turns up eight months later, pregnant, and agreeing to work for NERD to help them produce and patent all the human super genes from Dren’s samples that they’re able. Pregnant Elsa (Clive’s baby? Dren’s?) stands at the window, overlooking the anonymous city. The head of NERD, another bossy lady, joins her. They nearly embrace. Two ladies and a clone, about to change the world.
All this is cool, but makes me a little sad. Is the real fear here of powerful women, who are turning into men? Who’ve lost their maternal instincts, compete in the corporate world, and win? Who’ve even gone so far as to reproduce without getting married, or finding a mate? People! Really. Trust me. A matriarchy wouldn’t be that bad.
****END OF SPOILERS****
Much of Splice is sharp, and fun, and begs questions not often asked in the human cloning debate. It gets relationships down right, and gives Polley and Brody some beautiful lines. Both glow. They’re real and flawed and sympathetic in ways that most Hollywood films would never allow.
The resolution frustrated me—it shows a real fear of women in power that hearkens back to Cronenberg’s The Brood, and more recently, LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man. It’s as if, in denying a biological child early in the film, and dominating her partnership with Clive, Elsa has transgressed. She gets punished for that, and because she stinks, I want her to get punished. So I’m not sure why I’m left, at the end, feeling so very shat upon. Maybe because I want more characters like Elsa in films, only I want them to be less mean, and more cool. I want them to represent.
Anyway, kudos to Hollywood for releasing an intelligent, ambitious film like Splice. Wish they’d done more for the director’s predecessor, Cypher (2002). Lucy Liu, doesn’t Hollywood understand we need femme fatales? They’ve got to represent, against the Frankensteins.
Sarah Langan is a Brooklynite, author (The Keeper, The Missing, Audrey’s Door, all currently available from HarperCollins), and curmudgeon in training. She can be found online at www.sarahlangan.com and @sarahvclangan on Twitter.