“I am completely pro-science anti-creationism all the way, but sometimes science is fucking wrong and gives us shit we don’t need. Like 63 year old women giving birth. Why not just come out and go, “Hey, we made cancer airborne and contagious! You’re welcome. We’re science. We’re all about coulda, not shoulda.”
That just about sums it up for me. After watching Vincenzo Natali’s Splice one afternoon at the Arclight in Pasadena, I reflected on what a terrible geneticist I’d make. I would create new life, the thing would inevitably do something slightly weird, and I’d throw up my hands and be like, “Welp, time to burn the lab down.”
And this is coming from a pro-science atheist. I have absolutely no problem with stem cell research. I love the idea of cloning headless bodies for organ transplants. I’m looking forward to the day where I can eat meat that has been brewed in a vat. This is all because of my firm conviction that suffering should be reduced whenever possible and all of these admittedly terrifying practices have the potential to do just that. I’m not worried about souls for the same reason I don’t stress over the unicorn that lives in my fridge. They don’t exist.
But if there’s a monster involved? You break that glass, pull the flamethrower (because any lab I’d work in would have plentiful emergency flamethrowers), and you hose that squealing bastard down until it smells like a Korean barbecue place at noon. It’s not that I’m dead set against abominations that should not be – if that were the case, I wouldn’t be so keen on having kids – it’s more that if I’m in close proximity to a monster, I’m going to set the thing on fire. Incidentally, this is why I’m not allowed within 100 feet of Ann Coulter.
My flamethrower moment came pretty early on in Splice. Two geneticists, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) decide to create some new life against the wishes of the pharmacological company that employs them. They’ve already made a pair of designer organisms, which look like a weird combination of a slug, an aborted fetus and one of those bowel movements that only results from a late-night trip to Del Taco because you’ve already had about a quart of sipping rum and if you don’t get some Grade-D beef in your belly, you’re going to plow through an orphanage on the way home. Elsa thinks that the creatures are cute, because she’s emotionally unstable. But the creatures have been made, and their little bodies are already synthesizing some kind of amazing protein that will make everyone very rich. The problem is, there’s no thrill of discovery anymore. Now it’s just gruntwork. Elsa knows that one ingredient remains to make this the medical breakthrough of all time: human DNA.
Elsa, in an attempt to demonstrate the slippery slope, steadily escalates the commitment. First she just wants to see if she can get the splice to take. Then she wants to incubate it. Then she wants to raise it. By the end, she’s practically sending out college applications for the fucking thing. At each juncture, the world tries to tell Elsa that this is a bad idea, but with the blinders of a parent and the hubris of a mad scientist, Elsa’s not about to hear that. Not when the little monster learns to read!
The flamethrower moment comes as soon as the creature – named Dren – is born. It initially looks like some kind of penis-tadpole and the first thing it does is tag Elsa with the poison stinger on the end of its whiplike tail. See, as soon as your little creation tries to murder you? Set. It. On. Fire. There is literally no reason not to. It didn’t ask to be born, it might be ignorant of its actions. Look at the mistakes God made. When He tried to wipe out His creations with that silly flood, He did a shitty job of it and look what happened? Ke$ha. This is why we go with fire rather than drowning. Drowning never, ever works.
This is partially because drowning is deeply symbolic. Whenever a character is dunked in water, chances are this character is experiencing a rebirth, or she’s in a white t-shirt. Each time Dren hits the water, she undergoes a change: the first from girl to adolescent and the second from adolescent to scary troubled adolescent. Which is what Splice is really all about: that at a certain point, you realize that your child can overpower you.
Putting it delicately, my generation matures late, if at all. One look at all the pop culture sites, blogs of half-remembered cartoons from youth, and the proliferation of toys that could only be sold to people who remember the ‘80s tells that tale. We have fetishized our youth, which makes us reluctant to move on. Clive and Elsa are no different, living in an apartment stuffed with bright plastic gewgaws and manga artwork. Both are in prime childrearing age and have the money, but fear the responsibility. Dren arrives and fortunately ages at an accelerated rate, so she’s like a starter kid who will be dead in a couple months. A giant, poisonous, possibly homicidal starter kid.
Dren grows steadily more humanoid as she ages, starting life as the aforementioned penis-tadpole, maturing into a kangaroo rat thing before becoming something almost human. When she’s young, and theoretically cute (past the penis-tadpole stage), she’s mommy’s little girl. Then, at a certain point, hormones kick in and suddenly Dren is no longer a cute little baby. She’s a moody, sexually mature beast that speaks in an unintelligible language of trills and grunts. It’s like living with a French movie star. At this point, the child has a personality, likes and dislikes, and so becomes interesting to the father. And because this is a horror movie, the fact that she’s weirdly sexy doesn’t hurt either, which gets into the most disturbing Electra Complex this side of The Spirit. This transformation cues a break with Elsa. Now that she can no longer understand her child, Something Must Be Wrong With Her! While she’s entirely correct, the only thing wrong with Dren is that she’s not presently on fire. In any case, this provokes an attempt at symbolic castration, which just couldn’t possibly turn out more ironically.
Dren is just as confused. Like every child in history, she had no say in being born, although her situation is more complex because her parents belong to an entirely different species. It’s like being raised by wolves in reverse. Dren can’t understand her evolving feelings any more than any other adolescent, yet there’s no one around who can help her through them. This produces some of the queasiest moments in the film, inviting the audience to both identify with and be horrified by Dren. Because children are strangers. They can’t express themselves and they go through massive changes, periodically becoming entirely new people. We all went through this, and yet when someone else does, especially someone that looks and acts like a bizarro version of someone we love, it becomes baffling. Splice is that feeling, of living with a potentially dangerous stranger, and the horrible consequences of having a child before you’re ready.
You know, if the kid had a poisonous tail and a poor understanding of wordplay.