Splice is the second movie this year (after Daybreakers) that left me buzzing about what could have been. Plenty of films don’t even warrant that–they are so bad or so middling that they don’t even inspire a creative analysis of what worked and what could have worked. I’d rather see a dozen near misses than a surefire dud because at least the films that almost work give me something to talk about long after the credits roll. Days later, I’ve still got key moments from Splice rolling around in my head, but I can’t shake the things that kept it from being completely compelling.
The following will contain SPOILERS.
The Script – Like Daybreakers, I think maybe the biggest problem I had with Splice was the incredibly lazy dialog. There are some fantastic ideas in splice that really deserved to be framed by intelligent conversation, but instead the genius scientists at the center of the story only ever talk about those ideas abstractly. Most of the ethical debates in the film are summed up by dialog like “We shouldn’t be doing this” or “We could get in a lot of trouble” or “This is about right and wrong.” Well, no shit. We don’t need to waste time pointing that out, but it would have been nice if the script had an eloquent way to make those points.
When the two leads argue, they are similarly inept at expressing themselves. At least two of the major confrontations between Clive and Elsa ended with one character saying “what is that supposed to mean?” to which the other character replied with some kind of non-answer. When an important character scene in a film has one of the characters asking the other what he means, that’s usually a sign that the writer has no idea what he means. After all, these two people are supposed to be super-genius level thinkers and they can’t even talk intelligently to each other? We need to think that Clive and Elsa are smarter than us or the illusion of them being amazing scientists is lost. I believe that Jeff Goldblum is a genius in The Fly, but I don’t buy these two here.
The Switch – Usually planting an idea early in a story that will pay off later is a good technique, but in Splice, the gender switch is handled so poorly and comes from so far out of left field that it spoils the tension of the ending. At the point where the two slimy penis slugs are being shown off to a crowd of investors, the film loses its grip on reality, and the scene’s only purpose is to plant the idea that a creature can change genders. The film would have you think that the scene is there to add pressure to the erstwhile protagonists to synthesize some protein, but that whole thread in the movie is just a distraction. You know it’s a distraction when it’s quietly taken care of in one night of Elsa banging out some science in the lab.
I’ve got to think that the film makers knew that they wanted Dren to change into a male at the end to turn the crank even further on the sexual violence gage, but that whole bit was completely devoid of surprise and suspense thanks to the clumsy foreshadowing. Even worse, it was unnecessary and thematically confusing. Dren in the female form is creepy and beautiful and demonstrably deadly and she has every reason to use all of those traits against her “parents.” Dren is the victim in the movie. She’s the sympathetic character–the one character who’s tragic arc is none of her own fault. When she becomes a male and rapes Elsa, she turns into a straight-up villain and that whole scene requires the audience to either switch sympathies, to root for a rapist monster, or to hate everyone. It just doesn’t work.
The Science – I’m fine with suspending disbelief, but when a movie like this treads the line between reasonable science and absurd science, it just feels like a waste. Primer is a great example of a science fiction film where a single scientific breakthrough kicks the rest of the plot into gear without feeling ridiculous. We don’t need to have the science behind Splice explained, but the hokey way that the characters pull up futuristic applications on computer screens and just whiz through instantaneous genetic engineering was too convenient. The film could have arrived at roughly the same place by situating the two leads in a make-shift lab, and by rendering Dren the result of a wild experiment rather than a seemingly easy ‘oh, let’s try this’ job.
Even in 2010 when every patron in a movie theater probably interfaces with multiple computers in a day, film makers still feel the need to treat interaction with computers in movies as futuristic. Are we supposed to believe that advanced computer programs will accompany every keystroke with a sound effect when we are quite sure today that such a feature isn’t needed or wanted? When a director treats the audience as though they don’t understand computers, it’s off-putting and in Splice, the director treats science with the same kind of falseness. Why does Dren have to grow at such an accelerated rate? Why are these scientists left to do whatever they want as long as they produce some proteins? Why does Dren grow gills when she needs them, wings when she needs them and then a penis when she needs that? The answer is that all of these things are contrivances in the plot that make it convenient to get the characters where they need to be. Some more solid science would have actually made the film creepier because it would have skewed more closely to what is now or might soon be possible.
The Squabbling – Splice is set up perfectly to be a contemporary Frankenstein tragedy, and yet it gets so bogged down in dynamics that don’t matter. If Dren is supposed to drive a wedge between Clive and Elsa, wouldn’t the story be better-served by establishing a bond between them first? If Elsa’s turn against Dren is supposed to be cathartic, wouldn’t we first need to really believe that she cared for Dren as something more than just a pet? Why does the story even bother with the detour to get some proper work down for the company when the crux of the tension is between the dysfunctional family?
I would rather have seen Clive and Elsa dropped from their lab early on and left to their own devices to create and then deal with Dren. The personal side of the story where a father is aroused and seduced by his daughter or where parents don’t want their child to live anymore is powerful but its always undermined. Using Dren as a stand-in for a child would have allowed the film to really explore the relationship dynamics in a heightened state, but by having two idiosyncratic leads who are always kind of nipping at each other, Splice squanders most of that potential.
The Score – Lastly, it seems a shame that such a unique idea is presented as such a standard monster movie by its score. From the opening moments, the music is all atonal and ominous and full of the kind of deep, rumbling drones and screechy highlights that we have come to expect from horror films. It never dares to try anything interesting with the music, and as a result the film plays out like a demented studio picture.
The music doesn’t play up the drama and tragedy of the story as much as it screams out about the suspense and horror. The composer never tries to give Dren a theme and there’s not a single cue in the movie that works to convey anything other than “watch out, something is about to happen.” It’s all a great waste of potential to accompany such a unique vision and a unique idea with such boilerplate music.
Ultimately, I think Splice works because of the themes it hints at instead of the actions it portrays. the effective bits aren’t even in the movie, they are just implied by it. If the movie had been as interested in how the existence of Dren made people feel as it was in scaring the audience, it might have been a real classic. Unfortunately, by the end of the picture it’s easy to see Dren as just another in a long line of movie monsters who are better remembered for their creature designs than for what they say about humanity. I wanted to love Splice, and I hoped that it would be a little modern classic, but in the end it felt like a movie that never quite found its way to greatness.