Science-fiction is primarily a genre of ideas, one that looks at the world around us and considers “what if…?”. What if science and technology made advances in certain areas (or, in a steampunk context, what if it had in the past made certain advances or adopted alternative technologies), and how would we make use of them to expand our understanding of the world and the universe around us. Any good science-fiction story should almost always consider the nature of human beings within that, both in terms of the drives that could lead to these advances in technology and the ultimate impact of those changes upon humanity as a whole. Where humans, feeling, emotions and greed are involved, science will always be imperfect and that inevitably makes for some interesting areas to be explored about whether the expansion of knowledge and advances in technology will be used for good or, more commonly and more likely, for less noble ideals.
All too often however, particularly within the movie-industry in the present day – and you can include major films such as Avatar and Inception in this – the genre of ideas tends to become subservient to the love of the spectacle. (In fiction, on the other hand, it tends to dissolve into pulp writing). Vicenzo Natali is one of the few movie directors known for his willingness to use science-fiction to explore other ideas, but he’s also prone to letting spectacle and indeed – somewhat ironically – those flaws of human nature in relation to the letting the use of technological advancements in special effects get in the way of remaining faithful to the original idea and any consistency in the plot. So while Splice starts off on an interesting premise, considering the advances in our understanding of DNA and experiments using stem-cells and gene-splicing, it fails to carry them through with any kind of conviction or credbility.
Splice considers these ideas from the same cautionary tale premise that goes right back to Frankenstein (indeed, the names of the two scientists, Clive and Elsa are clearly a homage to the 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein, named after Colin Clive, who played Dr. Frankenstein and Elsa Lanchester, who played The Bride). Here, Clive (Adrian Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), two biochemists working for a medical Research company, have made exciting developments in the area of gene-splicing, using animal cells to create a new creature rich in proteins that will be invaluable to the pharmaceutical industry. Excited by their success, Elsa and Clive are keen to take their experiments to the next level and include human DNA in their work, but their employers, understandably, have concerns about proceeding in this direction. Heedless of the dangers, Elsa and Clive, plan to do their own little experiment, under controlled conditions, not taking the project through to its term, but just investigating whether it is even possible.
“The fools!”, the viewer inclined to enter into the spirit of it all may feel like exclaiming, “Do they think they are gods? Have they no idea that they are meddling with dark forces beyond the understanding of mere mortals?” And on that level at least the viewer, fully aware of the situation to be played out, may be prepared to go along for a while with the dubious rationalisations, unclear motivations and the suspicious lack of scientific rigour shown on the part of intelligent and so-called expert bio-chemists towards consideration of the morality and the possible consequences of their actions – to say nothing of the slightly ropey CGI effects that go into the creation of their “baby”.
That’s because, interestingly, not only is the project their own baby that they undertake on their own initiative and without the backing of the research company who employs them, but the project becomes their “baby” in a literal sense also. That questionable and unfathomable area of human emotions and impulses so vital to the science-fiction cautionary tale doesn’t come much more complicated than in the relationship between mother and child, or indeed, in the three-way relationship between mother, father and child (entertainingly and horrifyingly explored recently in the underrated Orphan), so even here, Splice finds a fascinating area to explore – one that, should the viewer be so indulgent, allows the film to get away with some of the more questionable plot developments.
Sadly however, for all the interesting scientific questions proposed in the premise of gene splicing, for the fundamental moral questions raised and the emotional responses that come with the creation of artificial human life, Splice soon falls victim to letting spectacle and the need to follow the traditional movie narrative arc prevent it from fully or realistically exploring these fascinating ideas. Worse, as the story and Dren develop, the film seems to pander to the fanboy portion of the predominately male science-fiction audience in its interest for, shall we say, the reproductive capacity of the new species, with some gratuitous nudity, sex and escalating violence that seems disproportionate and out-of-character with the characterisation and the issues raised. The moral of the film becomes clear by the time we get to the predictable conclusion, but Splice will have lost much of its credibility and its audience along the way.