Spoiler Alert: Splice and Sexuality

“It’s perfect,” scientist Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) says after cutting the umbilical cord of a genetically engineered flesh slug named Ginger. “Just perfect.” With his partner, Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley), Nicoli created the blobby organism by splicing the DNA of different animals together. Their goal: to harvest unique proteins that could revolutionize livestock medicine.

But the ambitious biochemists aren’t satisfied with curing cow diseases. If they use human DNA in their next creation, they may be able to find cures for everything from the common cold to cancer. Their bosses don’t want to deal with the moral implications of engineering partially human animals, though, and demand results from Ginger, first.

Nicoli and Kast don’t wait for permission. The creature they create is born looking like a legless facehugger and, growing at an accelerated rate, turns into something a little too human. They name her Dren (nerd backwards). Then Ginger’s violent debut at a shareholder’s meeting threatens to ruin the entire project.

Ginger’s story says more about Splice than it’s intended to. Writer/director Vincenzo Natali must have been as ambitious as his protagonists to tackle a tale that depends so heavily on believable creature effects, and apart from the film’s final few minutes, he succeeds (especially in the creature effects department, where it never hurts having Guillermo Del Toro on as a producer).

Splice gets a lot right on the way to its ruinous plot twist. Modern sci-fi tends to favor aliens over science, and it’s refreshing to see something that doesn’t rely on spaceship battles to hook an audience. What really caught my attention, though, (and what I hope to illustrate here) is the film’s novel use of sexuality to ease its audience into a state of perverted discomfort.

It begins and ends with Dren, who looks at first like a bald chicken with a misshapen human head and stubby little arms. She could hardly be less threatening:

But Dren doesn’t stay that way for long. Bit by bit, she loses her animal features. Soon she looks and acts like a human child, albeit one with big eyes and a tail. Kast’s maternal instinct kicks in and she starts coddling her and dressing her like a toddler:


She keeps growing. Kast shows her how to put on makeup. Nicoli teaches her to dance. She starts to look not just like a human female, but like a real, attractive woman. Since her tail sticks out and her long legs have two joints, she never wears pants. From the waist down, she’s naked and alien, but from the waist up, she’s almost indistinguishably human:

Her sexuality is revealed so slowly and subtly, you don’t realize you’re attracted to a biological experiment until it’s too late. It hits at a single moment about three quarters into the film. With Dren tied to a table for a medical procedure, Kast cuts off her shirt:

The perversion of the situation hits Nicoli in an over-the-shoulder shot:

Dren 4 (splice)

He is never a more sympathetic character than in this shot, where he recognizes, like we did just moments before, the full extent of the moral problem he’s helped create. We know exactly how he feels here, because we feel the same way:

Adrien Brody (Splice)

And now that we empathize with Nicoli, all it takes to throw us into a state of cognitive dissonance is a scene like this:

This is how Splice disturbs its audience, through attraction rather than revulsion. Lesser films use gore effects or dark background music to creep viewers out. The Human Centipede is a recent example of a movie that grosses its audience out to make them feel uneasy. That Splice uses beauty and sexual attraction to similar effect is absolutely remarkable (and worth another blog post).

Though it was generally well-received, Splice never quite got the recognition it deserves for its achievement, and that’s largely due to it having a plot twist seemingly contrived just so it could end with a big fight. Dren’s accelerated aging and limited cognitive capabilities invite an exploration of death and what it means to be human. Instead, we get a few dead bodies and a rape.

Despite its finale, Splice is worth watching, even if I’ve spoiled much of the plot. The story isn’t really what’s important here, anyways.

PostScript: I’d love to get a female perspective on the above analysis. Maybe for a lady, the gender-bending ending is a way to turn this post on its head. This blog allows comments, you know. They’re on the left.

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About Jam Batt

I enjoy cream soda.

Posted on 2.24.11, in Movies, Spoiler Alert and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Tickateeboo

    Hi,

    I watched this last night. I have to say we were expecting Dren to have become pregnant by Clive, have had the baby monster and for the baby monster to start wreaking havoc (as in Aliens Resurrection and Species)by the time they got back to the barn!

    But yes, the gender change was a bit of a strange one! You’d think they would have checked that she/he was already dead before they buried her. 😉

  2. I’m late to the game, but your post intrigued me, and I wanted to put in my two cents, as a woman, as well as a good old fashioned sci-fi geek.

    First, I think you’re right on the money with the twist of an ending. I said to my friend the movie lost me as soon as Dren wasn’t dead. The movie, which had been bold and daring in its approach up until then, gave in at the last moment to the urge to do a traditional monster ending.

    What’s interesting to me is not the fact that the film saw it necessary to give us a taste of both the Oedipus and Electra complex (one was disturbing enough, two felt almost gaudy). What was most interesting to me was the complete reversal of the two scenes. As you said, perhaps the most disturbing part of Dren’s scene with Clive was its strange, twisted sort of beauty. The most horrific part of it is we can, almost, forget to be horrified.

    But Elsa gets no such treatment. When Dren becomes male, she is no longer beautiful. The once-smooth and nearly human face is again bulbous and lumpy; the beautiful butterfly wings have grown to grisly proportions to allow Dren to fly, and the slender, delicate legs are now killing talons. There is no strangely beautiful male!Dren; rather, his whole appearance becomes reminiscent of a gargoyle. And there is no sensual, wrong-but-right love scene. It’s quick, it’s dirty, and it’s far from consensual, though Elsa doesn’t protest as much as one might assume she would.

    What I’m curious to know is what the directors meant by this. Elsa was, up until the stinger-ectomy, by far the more sympathetic toward Dren. She taught her everything, dressed her like her own personal doll, even put on make-up (a scene I found disturbing in its own right; make-up is intended to attract a mate, and thus far, the only man Dren had any sort of contact with was Clive. What was Elsa playing at, exactly, by trying to make Dren prettier than she already was?). Clive, on the other hand, was reluctant, stating several times they should go ahead and kill Dren, and at one point even trying to do so by attempting to drown her (lucky for Dren she had a set of aqualungs, and though the film never says why, being submerged seems to have magically cured her of whatever it was that was making her sick).

    Yet in the end, it’s Clive who makes love to Dren, and Elsa who is raped. Just what is the writer attempting to tell us, here?

    If that weren’t confusing enough, we also have the treatment of Dren as both female and male. She spends most of the movie being a strange sort of sexual object, growing more and more beautiful the entire time, then spends three horrible moments as a terrifying male. She-Dren innocently seduces, and Clive apparently has no ability to say “no.” He-Dren loses all traces of humanity, killing every male in the vicinity and raping the only woman, his creator and mother. While on the surface it may look like the movie isn’t terribly impressed with women, it’s frankly not saying much for men, either.

    But maybe that’s the point: Men, women, humanity in general, none of us seem to be up to much good in this movie. And look at what we created: a highly evolved creature whose only instincts seem to be for violence and sex. It’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at its most sophisticated: no matter how intelligent we get, no matter how hard we fight our baser instincts, they are always going to be there. And apparently, they are always going to be ready to bite us in the ass if we get too full of ourselves.

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