Saturday, June 5, 2010

The SPLICE of All Fears

In its opening moments, Vincenzo Natali’s sci-fi horror film Splice seems to promise greatness. There’s a nervous energy and eerie intensity with a sense of a smart, suspenseful story developing. Scientists work on a strange creature for a project of mysterious purpose, spitting jargon-filled dialogue back and forth. It reminded me of Shane Carruth’s great indie sci-fi thriller Primer in its willingness to baffle and provoke with its geeky specificity. Unfortunately, Splice fails where Primer succeeds, failing to build on initial intrigue in any meaningful way. Here, the plot grows duller and dimmer as it moves along, eventually reaching a point where every scene is a reason to groan, reaching a cornball peak with a climax that grows increasingly silly.

And yet, the first half of the film grooves on a nice little creepiness that’s pushed along by atmosphere and pacing with a little help from Natali’s quietly unsettling compositions. He doesn’t create striking or inventive visuals, even the special effects feel a bit middling, but there’s an odd sense that something’s not quite right with the soft blue glaze that seems to rest over everything and the strangely still and subdued scenes.

All of this is helped by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, with essentially the only two roles of any note in the film, as two scientists who are inspired by their first creature, and encroaching budgetary slashes, to splice human DNA into the mix. Human cloning is illegal, we are reminded, “but this won’t be human, not quite.” The sense of scientific boundaries breaking and moral lines muddying adds to the unsettling effect the film strives to sustain. Brody’s character seems in over his head almost immediately, with his distinctive features seeming to almost retract in stress and overwhelming helplessness. Polley’s features are similarly exploited for their smart horror-movie perfection. With her big eyes and expressive face she registers the emotions of her character with disturbing clarity, at times shot in ways that are surely intended to evoke Shelley Duvall in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as Polley’s love for their new creature becomes blinding and leads to trouble. But this trouble comes not just from well-intentioned scientific desires, or even the sublimated parental yearnings that the film touches on. Much like Nicholson and Duvall in Kubrick’s masterpiece, Brody and Polley play characters that seem to have crazy in their bones; it only takes a push into the unknown to set off a horrible chain reaction of psychological and biological torment.

It seems like I’m describing a good movie, but only because I’m describing the first part of Splice. In avoiding spoilers I am not telling you about the increasingly silly nature of the second half. This is a very cold, serious sci-fi horror film, with small splashes of dark humor (like in the scene where the front rows of an audience at a scientific convention ends up splattered with blood). As the film moves towards its conclusion, the dialogue begins to sound tin-eared, the characters’ behaviors seem less motivated, and the twists come fast and foolish. Maybe we’re supposed to be prepared for this shift by the moment when Polley muses that “if you could understand crazy it wouldn’t be crazy.” The movie loses its heft and rigor, succumbing to sequences of shocking and exploitative goofiness that would feel more out of place if the film hadn’t slowly slid there through the course of its second act. It’s a gradually disappointing movie, rather than springing it on you all at once, good enough despite the potential to be more.

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