Ugly Duckling


On Film

Why Splice isn’t science fiction.

Splice, an indie thriller directed by Vincenzo Natali, has been marketed as an updated tale of Frankenstein’s monster. Indeed, in Frankenstein’s tradition, Splice‘s heroic couple, Clive (played by Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), genetically engineer a dangerous creature, whom they name Dren, while in pursuit of knowledge, fame, and patents valuable to the pharmaceutical industry. But the movie isn’t really science fiction.

The science, for one thing, isn’t all that edgy or alarming. Splicing human DNA with that of other organisms? Millions of Americans inject themselves daily with human insulin, which is manufactured by mixing human DNA into that of E. coli bacteria, letting the bacteria bloom, and then putting it through a blender. As it happens, human DNA has a lot of nucleotides in common with animal DNA already, so a wanton squirting of animal genes into human genes is unlikely to make a super creature. In fact, humans and roundworms have about the same number of genes, which suggests that more is not more, in the number-of-genes department. How scary is the idea of typing up an organism’s entire genetic code on a computer, manufacturing it from scratch, and bringing it to life? J. Craig Venter announced a couple of weeks ago that he and his research team have done just that. Hope you’ve been able to sleep nights since.

As for cloning itself, the sheep Dolly, the first mammal to be cloned, was born in 1996. Bulls, cats, pigs, deer, mice, and goats have followed. By now, dog clones have been around for so long that The New York Times has run a lifestyle article about coping with the disappointment that Fido’s clone only loosely resembles the original. Human cloning is illegal in some states but far from all of them, and the technical challenge is unlikely to remain insurmountable. Three years ago, monkey embryos were cloned well enough to allow the extraction of stem cells, and two years ago, scientists in California persuaded clones of adult human skin cells to progress to early-stage embryos. Once human cloning does become possible, though, there’s little need to worry that it will catch on as a way of making new humans. Cloning, unlike natural reproduction, is neither inexpensive nor recreational. Moreover, it inflicts a fair amount of genetic and epigenetic damage on the progeny who ensue. You might not mind a little damage in a cow that you plan to eat, but few people are likely to want to clone themselves or their loved ones once they understand that the baby will be saddled with birth defects, developmental delays, a compromised immune system, or some combination of the above. The prospect would just be too sad.

Sadness brings us to the true subject of Splice: child rearing. Specifically, what’s a two-career couple to do when an episode of hastiness and curiosity leaves them with a squirmy naked mole rat who shows ambiguous signs of a developing intelligence and even sentiment? Feed it sugar and lock it in a plastic crate for as long as possible, of course. But once it begins breaking things, cornering people, and putting words together with Scrabble tiles, then what? The most science-fiction thing about Splice is that it never occurs to Clive and Elsa to provide their unbabysitted spawn with a television. Probably because the movie is so “irredeemably Canadian,” my husband complained. It’s for the same reason, no doubt, that no government agency ever shows up to sweep everything under the rug.

If, in the attempt to decide whether you want to see Splice, you survey the reviews, you will find that some critics praise it as innovative and off-kilter, and others loathe it passionately. My theory about the critical divergence is that the movie triggers moral disgust in some viewers. To enjoy it, you have to be willing to be entertained by the violation of taboos, and it helps if over the years you’ve read so much psychoanalysis that the whole idea of screwing one parent and murdering the other strikes you as a bit camp. It probably helps, too, if you don’t have children of your own and aren’t softhearted about any pets. (This, by the way, is probably about as far in this post as you should read if you want to avoid a SPOILER.)

To the viewer who has read a little too much Freud, however, Splice offers rare treats of visualization. Look, it’s the primal scene! the reader of The Wolf Man may crow. And, Oh, wow, Elsa just gave Dren make-up, a mirror, and a Barbie doll—it’s the mirror stage crossed with Jon-Benet Ramsey! the aficionado of Lacan may exclaim. A little later: Is that the phallic mother flapping around in the rafters? A seminar could be profitably spent trying to decipher the movie’s position on the implantation of desire. Does it happen when Mommy takes away the kitty or when Mommy cuts off the stinger? Does it happen when Daddy says “We love you” to keep Dren from flying away, or does it happen earlier—when Daddy tries to drown her in the tub? Maybe it’s the sequence. Consistent love, after all, is boring, even imprisoning. Love after a murder attempt—that’s romance.

In a parent, anyway. When a child tries to make love after a murder attempt, it’s monstrous. Or so goes the Freud-proof common sense that Splice indulges and then exploits to the breaking point and beyond. If Splice is interpreted for what it says about our culture, then parents today are deeply troubled by two questions about their children: Do they want to have sex with us and kill us? and What should we do with them all day? Freud’s follower Melanie Klein, the patron saint of horror movies, maintained that the answer to the first question was Yes, and then some. The term of art for the riddle is the Oedipus complex, and the challenge of being human is to fail at answering it and survive.

The perversity of Splice is that Clive and Elsa are so horrified by the first question that it determines their answer to the second. As parents, they know no better than their inhuman child how to integrate the sadistic and the affectionate components of attachment, an incapacity visible in the affect-drained style with which Brody and Polley portray them. When Clive accuses Elsa of wanting an experimental child in order to repeat on it the torture she herself experienced in childhood (Repetition compulsion! Identification with the aggressor!), events bear him out in his interpretation: Dren is strapped to a gurney, and Elsa takes a knife in hand. The dark heart of the movie turns out to belong not to Oedipus but to Cronus—to the wish in fearful parents to be unburdened of offspring who might someday prove to be a rival. This perversity is almost too bald for consumption as mainstream popular entertainment, which prefers to disown and sentimentalize its images of child torture and child murder. Somewhat excruciatingly, Splice prolongs the moral ambiguity and defers until the closing reel the archetypal horror-movie break—the moment when the heroes stop feeling guilty about their cruelties, withdraw their sympathy, and at last feel justified in killing the monster they have created. In a late attempt to scare the viewer into that break, the movie’s closing scenes borrow a plot twist from Jurassic Park (or borrow it from Freud’s narrative of penis envy, depending on the context you’re reading it from) and invert it.

The revulsion doesn’t quite come off. The monster’s late transformation may succeed in deterring the viewer from rooting for it, but the viewer has probably stopped rooting for its parent-creators, too, by that point. There’s nothing to do for the last quarter hour but marvel at the trans-Oedipal wilding. I think a corporate shill gets offed, but if so, it happens too quickly to be satisfactory (another Canadian omission?). Like Dren herself, Splice is a provocative monster of great promise but is hard to like.