I decided to watch Splice (2009; dir. Vincenzo Natali) because the New York Times called it “an intelligent movie that, in between its small boos and an occasional hair-raising jolt, explores chewy issues like bioethics, abortion, corporate-sponsored science, commitment problems between lovers and even Freudian-worthy family dynamics” (June 4, 2010), and because my son Charles and his friend Chelsey assured me it was the worst film ever made. It is a bad film, no doubt, much worse than the Times review suggests, but a core of intelligence does inform some of its themes. In this drama about two scientists who are genetic engineers working for a pharmaceutical company that seeks to create organisms that will excrete chemicals for use in treating disease, Splice considers such questions as scientific research with a profit motive, bio-engineering, gene splicing, artificial life, and human-animal hybrids. It considers what responsibility scientists have over life forms they might bring into being, including semi-human beings. The film gives special force to the latter theme by having one of the research scientists (they are lovers) use her own ovum to create a hybrid being. Her childhood with an abusive and disturbed mother comes to bear in particular ways.
The trouble is that Splice is a horror film, not a film about science. It’s a melodramatic horror film with a dash of sex and incest thrown in for good measure. It lacks essential understanding of how scientific research works, of how long it takes, of how many hits and misses are usually involved before a scientific experiment or project reaches a successful conclusion. It makes assumptions without investigating them first. The assumptions are reasonable—that profit-driven research might have a dark side, that creating human-animal hybrids might be physically and morally risky, that genetic experimentation and engineering might be dangerous. But it simply considers these assumptions as true. The film therefore operates on a foundation of vast right-wing paranoia and ignorance. The human hybrid the researchers create (secretly, without knowledge of the rest of their research team or the company they work for) has the legs of a deer, a long whip-like tail with a poisonous stinger, huge wings that come out when it is angry, and, of course, super human strength. It also changes gender in mid-adolescence. It’s a completely ridiculous creature. (I am wrong in calling it a beast—the film wants us to think of it as a human-like creature with big eyes and it grows up into an attractive young woman, uh, female (before it turns into a male)). Of course, the creature has to be fetching and lovable so we’ll care about it. Conveniently for the 90-minute length of the film, the creature grows and matures at an accelerated rate, so that the scientists don’t have to get older. They simply sit and watch. The woman researcher, to whom the hybrid is related, of course feels motherly towards it. The film suggests that although the scientists knowingly chose to splice together genes from various creatures in order to create just the type of creature they wanted they had no idea what they would really get. Thus the wings and the poison tail and the gender change come as a big surprise. Scientists advanced enough in knowledge and technique to splice genes will have a good sense of what they’re going to get in the resulting hybrid organism.
Why did Aidan Quinn (who seems to be choosing one bad role after another) and Sarah Polley (who once had a promising career as both actor and director) choose this film? Was it desperation? Or were they too drawn by the intelligence at its core, the intelligence that when spliced with large doses of digital effects, scientific confusion, and melodramatic Hollywood palaver came to naught?