“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:
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:
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.