Monday, June 07, 2010

Splice (2010, Vincenzo Natali)

Science fiction has become so ubiquitous in contemporary film and fiction that we hardly recognize it as itself. The days of the kind of heady, science fiction that commented on society and culture hasn't been in vogue or even much to be found for a long time. Though there may have been a healthy bit of cheese to the science fiction films of the sixties and seventies, they were also the inspiration for so many great films and pieces of literature that followed, that their cultural importance has to be recognized.

So it is enjoyable to have such a good new example of this kind of science fiction in theaters. Splice, the new film by Vicenzo Natali (who also wrote and directed the cult favorite Cube), is a very, very good film. I don't know that I would call it a great film or that it will be placed on the mantle with the kinds of classic science fiction films which are its' ancestors, but it is a well written, beautifully shot and constructed, enjoyably subversive and somewhat shocking film.

Splice is the newest in a very long line of fictional stories that stretches all the way back to "Frankenstein". Instead of reanimating dead bodies though, our intrepid scientists in this film are played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, and they are splicing human DNA with that of animal DNA to create a new organism. Of course, this new organism is the miracle humanity has been waiting for in combating all manner of disease, and the scientific team use the proteins and antibodies it's body creates to save millions from death. They are then held as heroes, but reviled by a secretive religious cult who attempt to destroy them and their creature. Battles ensue. The good guys win.

Everything in that last paragraph, except the parts about Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley starring and the DNA splicing are completely false. Our scientist protagonists do actually splice human DNA with a number of other animals DNA to create a new life form. It really doesn't go very well. The how and why of not going well is what makes Splice such an interesting and worth while film. The story line of the scientist overstepping his or her bounds in the midst of intoxication by the knowledge they've gathered is nothing at all new, as I said before. This film does take that story in some new directions though, and more fully explores some of it than other films or other mediums of fiction have. Those things do make it a thoroughly modern film in it's own way, but one which will resonate with audiences a long time in the future as well.

Adrien Brody is really the heart and soul of this film. Without his performance I don't think audiences would be willing to sign on and take the ride the film has in store for them. Luckily for Vincenzo Natali, and audience members, Brody is terrific, and the ride is certainly worth taking. One of the things that makes Splice somewhat different than most of the films that are within the same family is that is isn't really about the science at all. There are certainly some questions related to the moral implications of gene splicing, and specifically using human DNA in that effort, but they're shown through these two scientists relationship with each other and their relationships with the world around them. It is the characters, their relationships with each other and the creature they create that really drive this film and it's story. The effects are at times average, and others spectacular in their depiction of this living creature. I didn't feel at any point during the film that there was an attempt to put the effects front and center as the focus of the film. It's always about the characters and the story, and that was really refreshing to me. In fact, as the film moves forward, I honestly feel the effects became more and more subtle.

Natali delivers some moments in this film, story elements and scenes which are completely unexpected. It's gotten harder and harder to surprise me in the course of a film. That's to be expected when anyone watches as many movies as I do. There are lots of other people out there who are just as able to understand the normal rhythms and usual story elements at least as well as I do or better. There were a number of times while watching Splice that I was genuinely shocked because I in no way expected to see what was on the screen when I was walking into that theater. I will always give some credit to any film maker and writer who can accomplish that.

There are some pretty disturbing elements in this film. The things in the film which were disturbing and unsettling have nothing to do with blood and gore. There's actually very little gore in the film. What is disturbing about it, like everything else in the film and what makes it so good, is disturbing because in some way, it always comes back to story and character. I was sitting there squirming in my seat because what I was seeing on screen related back to some other piece of information I'd already been given. With the exception of the final sequence in the film, there's really not even any violence in this movie, and it's still pretty disturbing.

I do want to speak to the most often expressed complaint I've heard about the film. In a nutshell, people can't seem to get their minds around the idea that scientists this brilliant could possibly make the number of stupid decisions these two make in the course of the film. I understand that criticism, but at the same time, those decisions are never related back to a lack of intellect. These are obviously two people who are very talented and capable in their field of study and research. That's a literal no brainer. Not one mistake in this film is made out of sheer stupidity, and nothing in the film suggests that. It suggests at every turn that these mistakes are made because of personality failings these characters already have. The mistakes they make are made because they're either being arrogantly brash or they're being dishonest with themselves about their own intentions etc. The history of humanity, even very recently, is full of very intelligent, very capable people making the most elementary of mistakes for all these same reasons. In essence, these mistakes are made because these two people are immature and irresponsible, not because they are stupid. And again, immature and irresponsible are at no premium in the world we live in, no matter a person's intellectual ability.

That is one of the things I really do appreciate about this film. From the fifties forward, we've had a relatively steady diet of films part of whose overall perspective comes from a distrust of science and scientists. This is perfectly understandable to me, considering it was in the fifties that we as human beings, specifically scientists, cooked up the weapons which could literally destroy the world. It's important that the question "should we" is always addressed, along with "can we". But this film doesn't take that kind of perspective. It doesn't give us the kind of cookie cutter "bad scientist" who does something so incredibly irresponsible that none of us watching could possibly begin to see ourselves doing. These are people with very regular failings, like any regular person. Those failings also happen to be married to an incredible ability and talent that very few people have, and I think that's the kind of idea which is important to put forward and that we should be making a part of the narratives we tell each other, because they do eventually have some effect on our way of asking questions and having discussions.

Either way, Splice is an extremely well made film and it should be a boon for science fiction fans, horror fans and people who like to see people succeed outside the studio system. This film was bought for distribution after it was filmed. It was filmed and shot completely independently. It was able to draw the budget it did because of Natali's previous work, and honestly, it looks like it should have been a much more expensive film than it actually was. I can endorse Splice enthusiastically. Go check it out in theaters.

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