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When Subtext Goes Wrong / Some Discussion of "Splice" (2009)

Splice is a movie I really wanted to like more.  I've really enjoyed the director's (Vincenzo Natali) other works and the basic premise (scientists splice together genes to create a new species; the experiment goes awry) has lots of potential.

Ultimately I think I still ended up falling on the side of enjoying the movie.  Or at least, I found more to love than to hate.  But as I thought through the movie again and again, I kept finding that I had a problem with the movie's subtext.  I don't think the director, writers, and actors agreed on what it was supposed to be.
In order to discuss this more accurately, I guess I need a plot synopsis of some sort.  Open spoilers ahead.

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are genetic engineers / scientists who have been creating chimeric organisms in a laboratory.  Their stated mission goal - held by their financiers - is to create new organisms capable of producing proteins that can be used to treat diseases.  Their personal goal?  To push the boundaries of genetic testing as far as possible.

When the movie opens, they've succeeded in creating two creepy, dog-sized slug-beasts.  It's not directly stated what genes went into them, but from some random visuals it looks like they're a little bit slug, a little bit fish, a little bit oak tree, and a little bit kangaroo.  Maybe a rhino, too.  Why not.

Anyway, they feel frustrated by their company because they're not allowed to move on to more complex tests.  At the same time, they're discussing the possibility of having a baby together - by the way, did I mention that Clive and Elsa are married?  Splice kinda moves right past that point - but Elsa isn't ready for a child yet.  She wants to stay focused on their work, much to Clive's disappointment.

One fateful day, Elsa decides to go rogue and incubate a new experiment that includes human DNA.  Clive is reluctant to allow the experiment to continue, but his curiosity gets the better of him and they proceed.  The output is Dren (Delphine Chaneac), a strange and beautiful new organism that is more human than not.  Dren learns quickly and develops into a hyper-emotional, teenager-like creature.  She wants to be free to wander and explore the world - communicated via cat- and bird-like chirps and wide eyes - but Clive and Elsa have to keep her confined, lest they lose their jobs.

For a long time the movie focuses on the relationship dynamics between these three characters.  And then one day, apropos of nothing, Clive has sex with Dren.  Elsa catches them and understandably freaks out.  Then Dren starts to die for unclear reasons, and they give her a funeral.  Except... Dren isn't dead, she's just undergoing a sexual metamorphosis.  When she re-awakens, she is now a he - and he's a horrible, violent death-beast.

He-Dren goes on a murder rampage and kills pretty much every named character except for Elsa, who he rapes and impregnates.  Elsa bashes in Dren's head with a rock and kills him, then goes to her boss and offers to sell her fetus to the company for further experimentation.

Then the movie ends with Elsa looking thoughtfully out a window, because that's a lot of shit to process all at once.

The Part Where I Interpret the Not Terribly Subtle Metaphors

The most obvious layer is that Dren is a metaphor for a child.  The interplay between Clive, Elsa, and Dren is quite clearly that of father, mother, and daughter - at least for the first two acts.  There are moments where it is more gently hinted at, but for the most part the movie doesn't hide this at all.  Elsa talks to Dren as a child, dresses her in a little girl's clothes, reminisces about her relationship with her own mother, etc.  I really shouldn't even call this a "metaphor" because it's just so damn obvious.

It works best early on in the movie.  There are a few great moments where Clive rejects his role as a father figure.  He wants to deflect responsibility, both in terms of his part in creating Dren and his part in raising her.  This is a great way to play off of the gender stereotype that men fear change and fatherhood.

It also leads to some really interesting possibilities for exploring the fear of a child rejecting its parents; Dren is so unlike Clive and Elsa that they are lost in a bewildering mix of love and disappointment.  You could really play this up later when Dren becomes a monster and starts killing people.  After all, every parent's worst fear is that something bad happens to their kid, but their second worst fear is that their kid is the one doing the bad things.

You could also maybe draw a parallel between the ethical responsibilities of scientists and the ethical responsibilities of parents.  Scientists create a monster?  They have to accept their role in creating it.  Parents create a complete asshole?  They have to accept that they might not have been good role models.  And in both cases, you could get into the long-lasting or wider-reaching effects on society.

All of that is a rich vein... that is immediately thrown out the window once the characters start fucking.

Now I'm Confused About the Message

So... what exactly is Splice trying to say, then?  We fear that we will one day fuck our kids?  We fear that our kids will grow up and try to rape us?  I don't get it.

Once Dren becomes a sexual being, the movie takes a horrifying left turn.  To its credit, some of the scenes in the third act are legitimately frightening and memorable - both good things for a horror movie.  But these scenes derail any kind of message or themes that might have been built up in the first hour.

And really, why would Clive want to have sex with her?  Let's not pretend that this is supposed to be some comment on science - the movie's far too silly by that point to claim any actual merit in the real world.  Let's just instead ask what this says about him as a person.  "Well, the experiment's a success and I have a pseudo-daughter.  Hmm... does it have a vagina?"

I honestly would have had less of a problem if he decided to fuck one of the slug-beasts instead.  At least then the message would have been a little more consistent.  "Science is so bad, it just rapes everything!  See?  See what I mean here?"

And I haven't even touched on the gender politics.  What does it say that Dren turns into a male at the end?  What does it say that male-Dren is evil?  Is the message that incest is an instigating factor in creating the transsexual orientation?  That seems a bit callous, doesn't it?  Are we saying that transsexuals are evil?  Or are you not trying to say anything about gender and you just needed to come up with an arbitrary character turn in order to make the last twenty minutes a slasher film?

Now I'm too confused to even try to comment on the baby sale at the end.

It really feels like somebody had a great script, but it was only seventy pages long.  So he asked his creepy friend to fill in the gaps and completely forgot to read it again before they started filming. It's kind of like We Are What We Are all over again, except at least that one had more consistent characters.

I'm left deeply conflicted about the film.  I really want to give it a higher rating because there's a lot of great stuff here.  Also, I like the director and want to see him get more work.  But I just can't ignore the flaws.  This is equal parts good movie, cult classic, and complete disaster.