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“Splice” — Too Intelligent or Just Plain Icky?

“What’s the worse that can happen?”

Those words are uttered near the end of the new sci-fi / horror film Splice. But by that time, I couldn’t imagine anything much “worse” than what I’d already witnessed. The movie is getting surprisingly good reviews, with critics calling it “smart,” “thought-provoking” and “completely original.” However, if there was an “Ick” rating for films, Splice would get a perfect 10.

The setup is quick as two bio-engineers (and lovers) successfully “invent” a new hybrid animal species, gelatinous mollusks from which they plan to harvest disease-fighting proteins for a pioneering pharmaceutical company. But the synthesizing of DNA opens other doors, especially when the human kind of DNA is involved in the experimenting. Dren a bizarre human / animal species is “birthed” in the lab, and quickly the ethical and moral lines of the film are drawn.

A line that Splice crosses in the most disturbing ways.

Along the way, we watch Dren blossom (literally) from a two-legged tadpole with sad wet eyes and a sleek designer complexion, to a cross between a runway model and a velociraptor. This is where the film attempts to synthesize the viewers emotions. For not only do we teeter between pity and revulsion for Dren, the male protag eventually finds his “daughter,” um, kinda cute. (Did I mention the film gets icky?)

What has fascinated me about Splice is the divergent responses, not between the viewing public, but between the critics and the film’s box office tallies. Despite receiving positive press from the “experts,” Splice hasn’t made any money. Why is this?

Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times, blames the film’s poor showing on its critical acceptance. In Horror of horrors: Did the wrong kind of people like ‘Splice’? he writes:

Being disarmingly insightful is all well and good, but having seen the film myself, I can tell you why most moviegoers hated the movie. Its stars, Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody, play a pair of bio-engineers who decide that’s it’s a perfectly good idea to clone a new organism out of the DNA from different animals, even though ANYONE IN THEIR RIGHT MIND WOULD KNOW THAT THIS IS A LAME-BRAINED IDEA THAT IS SURE TO SPELL DISASTER.

Of course, that’s the DNA of horror movies — people are always involved in some hare-brained scheme that’s going to cause them a world of hurt. But Brody and Polley’s characters are so singularly unlikable that its no surprise that most audiences were unwilling to root for them after they got in over their heads. Critics, of course, rarely worry about whether the audience has any emotional affinity for the lead characters in a story. They’re much more interested in ideas, filmmaking style and the general intellectual frisson of it all.

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis gave away the game in her review, where she dropped the name of one cerebral filmmaker after another, comparing “Splice” to David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” seeing affinities to the work of David Lynch and Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and spotting allusions to James Whale’s “Bride of Frankenstein.” For Dargis, it was a delight to see an intelligent film that “explores chewy issues like bioethics, abortion, corporate-sponsored science, commitment problems between lovers and even Freudian-worthy family dynamics.”

But for real moviegoers, all those chewy issues didn’t amount to a hill of beans when it turned out that you were trapped in a movie with two nutty bioethicists who seemed far more clueless than the guys who sold you the bag of popcorn that you brought into the theater. (emphasis mine)

This wouldn’t be the first time critics appreciated what film-goers missed. However, my dislike for the movie didn’t have anything to do with the lead characters being “singularly unlikable” or the  “chewy issues” it broached. “Cerebral” wasn’t the problem here.

John Morehead of TheoFantastique builds upon Goldstein’s observation, suggesting that “intelligent horror” is Splice‘s downfall:

The film is not the normal fare in horror, science fiction and fantasy. It is reserved in special effects and action, and attempts to interact with key social issues of the day. As I state in this blog’s “About” page, “we live in an age more interested in finding spectacle than substance in popular culture, particularly in regards to the fantastic,” and for this reason I believe audiences have not been attracted to this film in great numbers.

Is “intelligent horror” really an oxymoron? Are movie-goers (specifically sci-fi and/or horror fans) “more interested in finding spectacle than substance”? It’s a reasonable question. Nevertheless, these were not the grounds for my dislike of the movie.

It is necessary that we ponder the implications of human cloning and genetic experimentation. Splice attempts to do this. But it pushes too hard. In the process, it takes the “playing God” motif from the realm of provocative into near blasphemy. Yes, there are moral dilemmas when humans start tinkering with life. But must we take those dilemmas to their ickiest extremes?

Midway through the film, one scientist states the obvious: “We changed the rules.”  But by the time the credits roll, I was left wondering whether there were any.

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • TIm Geore June 18, 2010, 11:21 AM

    It looked too much like Species 1 – whatever to want to see it.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller June 18, 2010, 12:11 PM

    Is “intelligent horror” really an oxymoron? Are movie-goers (specifically sci-fi and/or horror fans) “more interested in finding spectacle than substance”?

    I admit, I got stuck on that point, perhaps because I haven’t seen (nor am I planning to see) the movie. My mind went to the TV sci fi that has been so popular—all things Star Trek. Granted, not horror, but the writers of the various off-shoots never shied away from creating thought-provoking, even issue-driven story lines. Is the new generation f fans so very different that they will not tolerate something meaningful?

    Avata may have had the thinnest plot possible, but aside from the wonderful visuals, “what it was saying” was the most discussed topic I read about.

    Maybe horror fans are different, but I don’t think the statement is true about Sci fi-ers.


    • Mike Duran June 18, 2010, 12:44 PM

      Becky, I think there probably IS a difference between how horror fans and sci-fi fans approach “intellect” in their genre. It may that the film genres have become so stereotyped by (1) Gore and (2) Effects, that we jsut don’t perceive fans being brainy. As I said in my post, I’m all up for the intellectual challenge. The film just got unsettling (and not just as an ethical exercise). But I agree with you, I just don’t think a sophisticated, philosophical element in a horror / sci-fi flick immediately disqualify it from commercial success.

    • Kaci June 18, 2010, 1:33 PM

      Yeah, I don’t know that the intellect of the movie-goer is necessarily the problem. I have friends who are movie buffs and go see everything that comes out. And others…well, they just like horror movies. Some of these guys, I swear, can find something substantial regardless of the movie. A philosophical discourse may not be the reason they’re going, but it’s not a matter of capability.

      Besides, if that be the case, I could easily throw chick-flicks under the same bus. But I’ll play nice for the time being. 0=)

  • Kaci June 18, 2010, 12:50 PM

    My only problem with horror movies is that I tend to, well, not think them frightening (maybe I just keep getting conned into bad ones – which is quite possible).

    Anyway. Quick question: Why, in the name of sanity, does she look like a squid? I mean, wouldn’t they have, at the very least, stayed with in the mammal department while cloning? (Obviously, I know nothing about the movie beyond this post and the linked articles.) I don’t have a problem with her not looking/being human: But why wouldn’t she possess features that look something like what she was spliced with?

    Okay, end rant. We’ll save my spiel on aliens for another day. 0=)

    • Mike Duran June 18, 2010, 1:06 PM

      Kaci, the creature is part mammal, part avian, part amphibious, part… You get the picture.

      • Kaci June 18, 2010, 1:26 PM

        Ah, ok. Still. You’d think they’d go with something most likely to survive the cross-breeding. Anyway. I’m likely trying too hard… 0=) Thanks.

  • A. J. Walker June 19, 2010, 12:36 AM

    I don’t know Mike, maybe because it just looked like a dumb movie to the average movie – goer despite what the critics thought.

    I subscribe to a movie trailer site and started seeing the trailers pop up a few months ago, long before the critics you cited sat down at a preview and I knew I didn’t want to see it back then. I didn’t even think it warranted a DVD rental.

    Some scientist mess around with DNA and don’t expect to get something horrific from their results? Their creation then goes on a murderous rampage and kills it’s creators? Now, where have we seen that story before 😉

    I don’t go see movies for their special effects (this whole 3D thing is driving me bonkers BTW. Why is EVERYTHING in 3D now?). All I want to know is does it have a story I’d be interested in spending my money and time? If it has great special effects, that’s gravy but the meat has to be the story.

    I’m probably one of the few people who hated Avatar based on how much money that film made but the special effects couldn’t make up for a derivative Dances With Wolves starring blue people.

    I don’t think, in this particular case, it had anything to do with the critics saying it was good, instead I think most people passed because it looked like something we’ve all seen done to death already.

  • Nicole June 19, 2010, 8:48 AM

    Haven’t seen the film. Never will. With A. J. here: the trailer looked not only “icky” but stupid–which isn’t a very intellectual assessment I admit.

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