Director Vincenzo Natali’s Splice is unequivocally one of the most disturbing films to grace the cineplex this year. And that’s fine. It’s good to shake things up and disturb the peace of the standard guns, gore and explosion-fueled R rated film. Splice is a sci-fi horror film that combines so many contemporary issues that it will make your head spin watching it. The film focuses on a couple of star scientists -- Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive ( Adrien Brody) – who are out to discover the protein that will cure human disease, but in the process they decide to create a human/animal hybrid who they raise like their own child. Through the story of Elsa, Clive, their bizarre child-monster Dren, and their connection to private pharmaceutical interests, the film manages to combine a whole mess of hot topics such as abortion, biotechnology, the reproductive industry, genetic research, cloning, big pharma’s role in late capitalism, maternity, sexuality/gender and so much more into one disturbingly effective film. The film not only splices together one disturbing and button-pushing monster child, but it splices together a ton of issues at the forefront of 21st century economics and politics while also providing one hell of a disturbing female body horror film.
Certainly the themes explored in Splice are no strangers to sci-fi movies, but what makes Splice so effective (like in the films of David Cronenberg) is its merging of science with the real flesh of humans. The movie manages to bring its science-fiction material into the flesh, blood, and emotional complexities of the human body, and that is what ultimately delivers the horror of the film. The human body and the human species are scary things. While their flesh makes humans both vulnerable and corrupt, their intellect and drive for power and success make them dangerous. There is no denying that Elsa and Clive are human. One of the things that makes the movie so disturbing is how “normal” Elsa and Clive seem to be and how their “normal” lives are merged with horror. They communicate in the language and exhibit the dynamics of “normal” couples going through the “having children” trajectory. As they create little abominable hybrid creatures in the laboratory, they exhibit all the traits of couples who are trying to get pregnant and then give birth to their baby. The only difference is that Clive and Elsa create babies outside of the human body. These aren’t babies gestating in the warm comforting environment of the female body, they are bizarre hybrids created entirely outside of the body. Elsa and Clive’s final monstrous “creation” is the human/animal hybrid Dren who they raise as their own child.
All the while, as Elsa and Clive give birth to these scientific experiments, they have the kind of interactions ordinary couples have. They banter back and forth about their apartment, about moving to a bigger place to eventually have “real” children, and they discuss Elsa’s seemingly harmless apprehensions about having babies of her own. By placing so much emphasis on the ordinary “human” characteristics of Elsa and Clive and their relation to each other, the movie creates a tension between our perspective of the two protagonists as “human” and our vision of them in a monstrous situation of their own creation. As we watch these two humans struggle with the monster of their own creation, the audience is pummeled with questions of morality and responsibility. Over and over again, as they push biotechnological experiments to the edge, Clive and Elsa question the “responsible” thing to do, but over and over again they cave into their own human compulsions which muddle the picture. Is it responsible to “kill” (e.g. abort) a monster before it is born, or is it responsible to let a living thing live (even if it is a monster)?
There are no easy answers in this movie because, as in the best of horror movies, the line between what is monster and what is human is murky. There are many monsters in Splice, and monster-child Dren isn’t necessarily the biggest one. In fact, like in the Frankenstein narratives, Dren only exists because she is created by humans. She is a freak created by freaks. Dren is the manifestation of other monsters. The monster of science and biotechnology used for profit. The monster of sexual repression. The monster of genetic history. The monster of the cycle of abuse. And most prominently, the monster of birth itself. The film opens with a birth scene where we as the audience are actually looking out at the proud parents – Clive and Elsa – as their “child” is born. While at first glance, it may seem like we are looking out through the eyes of the baby being born, really we are looking out from the perspective of the birth canal itself as if the vagina has eyes. Now, that’s scary! When the baby is actually delivered, what we see is a thick writhing overtly phallic hunk of flesh which the couple names Ginger to match its mate Fred who is housed in a laboratory incubator. So from the birth machine, the phallus is delivered, and neither one of them is particularly attractive at this point in the movie.
Nevertheless, the movie situates us inside the birth canal as the site of the horror. Indeed, it is Elsa’s fear of succumbing to her bodily maternal instinct and the act of displacing her female reproductive system onto science and technology that brings on the horror. In a Frankenstein attempt to procreate outside of her body, Elsa merges her genetic material with the genetic material of animals and creates her own monster child Dren. Interestingly, while the birth delivery system -- Elsa -- is markedly female, the creatures themselves are phallic. Even Dren, though sexed as female, is born looking like a penis with legs. Indeed, all the creatures in this movie are born looking like penises, and even the ones who are born female eventually lose their female sex and turn into males/penises (and become deadly). At one point in the film, Fred and Ginger have a violent fatal incident, when Ginger changes gender and the two phalluses attack each other in a bloody battle which splatters the pharmaceutical company’s economic sponsors with the gore and viscera of this experiment gone wrong. In one of the final scenes of the movie, Dren herself changes sex, and rapes and impregnates Elsa (her/his own mother and creator).
The fact that all the creatures eventually become male hones in on what drives the horror of this movie. It is Elsa’s fear of her own maternal body that creates the movie’s horror. She is so mortified by her own maternal body that the only way she can imagine becoming pregnant is by impregnating herself through her own abominable creation. The fact that all the creatures switch sex (are born penises and return to the penis) manipulates our sense of what he movie is saying. On the one hand, it is saying that the site of birth – the mother – is the horror, but on the other, it is saying that the phallus is the ultimate horror. In a way, the movie is having its cake and eating it too, or maybe it’s just saying that humans – male and female – are all fucked up.
In the meanwhile, let’s get back to Clive. Clive, a man solidly grounded in his penis, his body and his sense of right and wrong, is horrified when he discovers that Elsa has used her own DNA to create Dren. He is outraged at her moral irresponsibility. Cloning humans, especially yourself, is wrong! But then again, as a man solidly grounded in his penis, Clive is also intrigued by the fact that a piece of Elsa exists inside Dren’s rapidly growing sexualized female body. Clive is so intrigued that his bodily desire overpowers his sense of “responsibility,” and he tosses his morality aside and fucks Dren on the floor of a barn.
So in the middle of all this science fiction narrative involving cloning and biotechnology, the audience witnesses two extremely taboo sexual acts – a man having sex with his “monster daughter,” and then the monster child raping his/her own mother. Both acts are delivered quite graphically, and create immensely disturbing and uncomfortable scenes (so much so that a few people walked out of the movie during both scenes). We are witness to Dren’s naked body, exposed and sexualized, like we would never be witness to an actual “child’s” body on the screen. The sex scenes are incredibly tense because, on one level the audience is asked to accept them because they are “horror” scenes with a monster; Dren is not human so therefore the movie can expose her naked sexualized child-monster body for all to see. But on another level, so much has been invested in making Clive, Elsa and Dren human, that the audience cannot separate the monster from the human. Ultimately it is the human quality of these taboo acts, the fact that they are grounded in real human flesh and occur within very human relations, that delivers the horror. What can be more horrific than watching a father fucking his daughter and then the same child fucking his own mother, which also, in a way, is watching the mother fuck herself? Goodness gracious that’s some scary material.
What these scenes do is bring the age-old horror movie theme of sexual repression to the literal surface of the film. The movie begins with Elsa distancing her relationship to her body and her reproductive sexuality through science, but as her “primal” maternal instincts surface, the movie begins to shift. Elsa becomes less present at the laboratory, and more present in the horror of her own maternity. The movie opens with Elsa firmly grounded in the sterile environment of reproduction technology. The scenes in the lab are lit with a cool blue light, eliminating any sense of organic bodies. But as Elsa gives birth to Dren, and the machines of science literally begin to leak and Elsa immerses her arm into the birth canal, she no longer is able to maintain that safe clinical distance from her own body. The shift from scientist to mother occurs when Elsa takes off her protective mask and offers her bare hand to Dren. Flesh on flesh contact occurs; the boundaries are broken, and the horror begins to grow. Elsa moves from the clinical setting of the laboratory, to the dense woods of her childhood home and her sexual unconscious.
When Elsa moves Dren to her childhood home, the lighting of the film changes. We are no longer in the sterile environment of the scientific laboratory. We are in a place haunted by Elsa’s past and her body. The barn is dense with shadows and debris from the past -- old tools and antiquated equipment, a glowing orange light infusing everything with a living pulse, ladders leading into lofts, and a tank of murky water. It is in this location, when Elsa returns to the site of her body’s sexual growth, that she inscribes her own repressed sexuality onto Dren. Elsa gives Dren her secret childhood Barbie to hug (a sexualized female body which she was forbidden to play with as a child) and the transformation of Dren into a sexualized female begins. As Dren grows into a sexual body, Elsa dresses her up in a slinky black dress and paints her face with eyeliner and lipstick. The more sexualized Dren becomes, the less sexualized Elsa becomes. Early in the film Elsa wears sexy black clothes that fetishize her female body. When she moves Dren to the barn, Elsa slumps around in oversized sweaters and baggy pants that hide her body. As Dren becomes more sexualized (bringing Elsa’s repressed sexuality to the surface), the movie becomes more disturbing and uncomfortable (in a good way) by throwing taboos onto the surface and asking the audience to experienced them full frontal. Indeed, as Elsa displaces her own confused sexuality onto Dren by intentionally sexualizing her, we can say that Elsa unconsciously orchestrates the sex scene between Dren and Clive.
It is clear in these scenes that Elsa is the intended monster in the movie. She is the one who created Dren out of herself. Elsa gave birth to the monster inside her. In fact, Dren is at her most monstrous when she is confronted with the fact that she’s part of Elsa, that Elsa created her from her own genetic material. The monster inside Dren surfaces when she realizes how imprisoned she is by Elsa physically (in the barn), psychologically (by Elsa’s emotional history) and genetically (by Elsa’s DNA). Elsa is the 21st century Dr. Frankenstein who clones herself and makes a “monster” because she is so afraid of her own sexual/maternal body. When that monster discovers how it was created it is outraged.
But what does this all mean? We have a pharma company lurking in the background and which is represented by one single woman in a position of power. We have Clive who is both impotent yet also ruled by his penis and his flawed sense of morality. We have Elsa who orchestrates the horror in this movie, creates hybrid phalluses, including one that eventually fucks and impregnates her (with herself). We have monstrous creatures who resemble fetuses when they’re born and evoke badly deformed babies or the horror spectacle of late-term abortions as propagated by pro-lifers. We are given multiple moments that raise the abortion issue – whether it would have been better to kill Dren before she was born or let her live in her monstrous state. But ultimately we have Elsa.
In the final scene Elsa basically marries the pharmaceutical company. She signs over her body and her mind to science for profit. She stands next to the female CEO (a woman who always wears pants), and she is pregnant by the creature she created from herself and which will be used for corporate interests in the name of saving human lives. Elsa’s worlds are joined. The laboratory and her body have become one, and the phallus is removed from the picture. Elsa has become the real hybrid in the film. She is the one who has spliced herself with herself and in so doing has created one hell of a weird, creepy horror film.
As these two women stand side by side looking out of the window of the pharma company’s executive office, part of me wonders what the hell Vincenzo Natali is saying about women and maternity. Is he saying that maternity or not, women are no different than men? Just like the hybrid penis creatures in the movie, are women inherently born male? Are we better off getting rid of the phallus, or does the phallus exist in all of us and can never be eliminated even without a male body? Perhaps Natali is saying that gender doesn’t matter and that we’re all phalluses at the heart of things. How should my feminista-tendency address that perception? I don’t know. I can’t help but laughingly question what role Natali’s Italian maleness (and the influence of Catholicism) played on his vision. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. I was enthralled by the movie. It’s fusion of science-fiction with the female body and its unveiling of uncomfortable sexual taboos and repression won me over. The very fact that a movie like this is playing in theaters and throwing such issues as abortion, maternity, sexuality and biotechnology so confoundingly in the face of the mass audience certainly beats the other options at the multiplex right now. Splice is one hell of a splicing job.
Note: This movie was almost impossible to write about because there is SO MUCH going on in it that I barely scratched the surface. I focused on one area that was of particular interest to me, but there are so many other directions anyone could take with this movie.
Edit: After an exchange with a friend over at FB, I realize that one of the reasons this movie is so hard to write about is because it contains all the elements for political dissection -- abortion, biotechnology, cloning, corporate control of the body, etc -- but in the end it resists politicization. It ends up being much more pscychological than political. It also remains incredibly allusive. It throws all of these things at the audience and makes our heads spin and reel with them, but it offers no specific point-of-view. Instead it makes for an experiential film, where we experience all these things but are left on our own for interpretation. That makes it so much more interesting and fun!