The wrong genes

It’s been a while since I’ve really let loose on anything.

But, tonight, I saw Splice.

Normally when I dislike a movie or an album, I don’t feel a burning desire to run to the blog and vent my extreme dislike. I usually prefer to share things I love with our readers, but certain posts and series on this site have garnered me the “hater” tag. I wear it rather proudly knowing that I do not hate for hate’s sake. I’d like to think that my critiques–vitriolic and knee-jerk though they at times may be–serve in part to illuminate what I perceive as flaws in existing art, pointing to alternative directions and possibilities.

But I really hated Splice.

I went to see Splice based on tremendous buzz garnered from the festival circuit combined with a promising trailer and mostly positive reviews (currently Splice sits at 72% on Rotten Tomatoes and a favorable 65 on Metacritic). My excitement turned to cautious optimism to distaste within the first 20 minutes. I believe that “utter contempt” accurately describes my feelings towards the rest of the film (with the exception of one very brief moment that falsely led me to believe the film was suddenly heading onto the right course–it stumbled over itself shortly thereafter, saving me from the tremendous obligation of actually having to enjoy its final third).

I’m not going to get into the laughable dialogue, the poor acting as a result of said dialogue (and other factors to be discussed at length shortly), the lack of thematic thrust, the chaotic editing that occasionally clouds understanding of continuity, or the appropriation and dilution of some of the finest ideas and moments from the histories of horror and science fiction film*. I want to discuss a condition with which Splice is acutely afflicted: narrative schizophrenia. I will attempt to do so by revealing as little of the plot as possible (that said, if you really want to know nothing about this movie before plunking down your hard earned money to see it, navigate away right about now).

This much is obvious to anyone who has seen the trailer: Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are geneticists who mix human and animal DNA. The result is an uncanny humanoid creature with a spiked tail. From its first few moments, the film batters viewers with what becomes a constant chorus of

“Should we kill it?”
“No it’s an incredible scientific achievement!”

“We should kill it!”
“No I love it!”

And so on and so on (this is, of course, not real dialogue, but it might as well be because when you write a screenplay and you actually include the line “I don’t even know you anymore” in earnest and you’re not writing a romantic comedy or domestic drama, lines like “No it’s an incredible scientific achievement” sound Pulitzer worthy). This back and forth between killing a potentially dangerous, entirely unpredictable life form and saving it in the interest of science is not an innately bad set of opposing opinions to place in a script. On the contrary, it’s quite a classic one in horror and science fiction. Both Alien and Aliens mine this territory for all its worth, resulting in two vastly different and equally classic films. Splice’s particular problem arises in a constant shift in these poles that often occurs without warning. One moment one character wants to kill the creature and the other wants to save it. The next the roles are completely reversed, usually with little explanation as to why (Natali offers small visual cues that are meant to point to specific emotional reactions and traumas, but they are often empty and far too abstract to add true meat to the narrative and its protagonists). This process of polar shifts continues up to the film’s end, at which point we think we know which way a character is going to lean before Natali pulls the rug out from under us once again.

By the time Natali begins throwing wildly deus ex machina moments and solutions into the film’s second half, I’d already lost the considerable interest I had going into the film and was content to simply laugh at the mounting absurdity playing out on the screen between fits of boredom. The movies structure is so incidental and its characters so listless and indecisive that it is impossible to find a place to stand as a viewer. By robbing the protagonists of clear, constant goals or some overarching drive, Natali creates a shifting foundation that never allows the viewer to get comfortable (and I do not mean this in a good way–the best horror movies unsettle, but not, generally, in terms of their structure and tone**). I had no investment in either character. As happens to me in most slasher flicks populated by brain dead fodder for hulking serial killers, I wanted to see the scientists punished for their endless stupidity.

Furthermore, because the characters shift seemingly at random throughout the film, it is almost impossible for Brody and Polley to gain any traction within the skins of the scientists they portray. Polley comes closer than Brody, but Brody is an impenetrable mess flying across a cavernously disconnected emotional spectrum that seems to have little root in any sense of logic, narrative or otherwise. The incidental nature of the story prevents the actors from giving performances that truly bear the souls and thoughts of their characters beyond the rote dialogue they’re given.

A counter thought to all this criticism is that the movie, in structure and characterization, is meant to mirror the confusion that accompanies the tremendous burden of the deep ethical questions that surround the experiments of Brody and Polley. However great the merit of this argument might be, it doesn’t make for an enjoyable viewing experience. Instead we get a muddled mess steeped in “could’ve beens” born of a promising concept. Splice is a B movie that masquerades as an A picture, dressing itself in crippling self seriousness (which led to plenty of laughs from the 15 or so other members of the audience sitting around me). You are better off watching Alien and Rosemary’s Baby at the same time.

*Splice culls its very being–with little to no grace, I might add–from a deep well that includes no less than Alien, Rosemary’s Baby, Altered States, and Frankenstein. Now, this is not to say that a movie should not borrow from the past–Quentin Tarantino has made a career of borrowing from his favorite genres. Tarantino, however, has made some original, daring, and wildly entertaining films in the process. There is a difference between following the instructions that come in the Lego box and building you own damn castle. Neither is wrong, but one is what separates the Tarantinos of the world from the Vincenzo Natalis (of course, Natali has already crafted one cult hit in Cube, so it is not entirely inconceivable that Splice could curry similar favor and status). In a related note, it is fascinating that for a movie so deeply indebted to classics of horror and science fiction, it nails none of the fright, tension or wonder that is paramount to the effectiveness of these films.

**A great exception to this is Takashi Miike’s chilling Audition, which provides hints at tonal shift along the way but none that fully prepare the viewer for what’s to come.

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