01/07/2010. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper
Two biologists, each with psychological problems, specialising in DNA splicing, finds Mark, become de facto parents to the partially human creature they create in their laboratory. Vincenzo Natali directs and co-authors, but the film sadly lacks the fresh originality of his previous films. The science is more hysteria than believable.
Natali's film about DNA-splitting seems disappointingly recombinant.
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Vincenzo Natali's chief claim to fame still seems to be his creative 1997 film Cube about people in a huge cube filled with cubic rooms inside and a set of rules for going from one chamber to the next. At the Toronto International Film Festival I have seen two other clever films he has created, but they seem to be unknown to most of the world of film fans. I can see why his Nothing seems almost unknown. It is a very clever novelty film that makes some telling philosophical points but seems mostly aimed at the cult film circuit.
On the other hand Natali made Cypher. I still consider this to be the best Philip K. Dick film not really based on Philip K. Dick. If I wanted to get someone to read Dick, I would show him Cypher. Natali really captured the feel of Dick's technologically advanced paranoia. That said, even with a bigger budget Splice just does not seem to have the inventiveness of his previous films. I see bits of Alien, Embryo, and Species in Splice. There is definitely some Cronenberg biological horror there also. Oh, and did I forget to say Frankenstein?
This is the sort of Frankenstein story you get with an infusion of technical jargon about DNA splicing. The creature's origins sound a whole lot more believable than stealing corpses, but the result is no less absurd. Clive Nicoli (played by Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are two bio-engineers whose job it is to split and reconnect DNA strands and see what creatures grow from these hybrids. The things they get are strange looking and unpredictable.
They make them in pairs and then name them for famous couples like Romeo and Juliet. Most recently they have created living beasties they call Fred and Ginger, but from their shape could be called Rye and Pumpernickel. Clive and Elsa have been given one hard and fast rule. They are not allowed to use human DNA. So on one level what we have is a morality tale because you know darn will what they are going to do and you know darn well how happy they will be with the outcome. Their new creature is Dren. That is "nerd" spelled backwards. Dren seems cute and vulnerable ... at first.
The film is anxious to get Dren's childhood out of the way to get to teenager-parent sorts of problems--problems with which the target audience can most empathise. Rather than flashing forward in time, we find that Dren matures something like 18 human years in just a few days. By a freak of DNA she is at first surprisingly normal after developing so far so fast. Of course, here DNA- chimera body has all sorts of special body parts taken from different animals, but she is mostly human. She has special wings that are too small to convince the viewer she really could fly and too big to believe they can tuck away undetectably into her body.
She is a rebellious virtual-teenager and her parents do not know what to do with her. Her special weapons and powers do not help. Many of the problems Clive and Elsa have with have with Dren are problems that real-world parents have with their children without benefit of DNA splicing. While Dren turns into a human, Elsa turns into her mother. I do not know what the mix of DNA in Dren is but it is clearly the human that dominates. And when the human does dominate, it is French actress Delphine Chaníac who does the dominating.
While the images seem a little dim, Tetsuo Nagata's photography has some arresting images that trip a slight natural revulsion to some things biological. The film may be better to look at than think about. (Nagata's work can also be seen in the current Micmacs.) Somewhat distracting is Adrien Brody's and Sarah Polley's endless gallery of T-shirts.
Vincenzo Natali has shown more originality in the past than he is showing in the present. A Frankenstein film does not have to be pieced together from other bodies of work. Splice gets a disappointing +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper
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