Saturday, June 12, 2010

SPLICE Review - Close To Good

Vincenzo Natali's SPLICE opened last weekend and I'm guessing you probably didn't see it. Despite having a relatively large marketing campaign for being such a small film, it still performed like a small film at the box-office, coming in #8 over a fairly quiet weekend. With the KARATE KID and A-TEAM films opening this weekend, SPLICE will likely be pushed from the top 10. This still isn't bad considering that I have a hard time fathoming how it got a wide-release in the first place. That's not to say that it was poor by any means, plenty of poor films can be seen everywhere, this was just very out-there.

First off, the film forces the viewer to take a pretty large leap of faith. SPLICE is set in a sort-of sci-fi alternate reality where peculiar splicing experiments are possible. The magnitude of these experiments and the impossible hurdles involved in achieving them are never fully explored. All it takes is an all-nighter, some good music, and a few variations in key-stroke to allow for human-animal hybridization. I'm not knocking storytelling here, I'm merely laboring my above point; this is a world unlike our own. Once situated, we can start to take in the focal point of the film: the relationship between the two leads (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) and their creation, Dren (Delphine Chaneac).

Dren, the semi-human chimera, really steals the film. Neither Polley nor Brody give particularly great performances (though Polley often reminded me of a young Julianne Moore), both being outshined by their creature creation. Dren offers a surprising amount of modes and emotions. At times she's childish, then a seductive adolescent, then vulnerable, playful, malicious, dangerous and the adjectives continue. Each scene in her development brings something new and she never speaks a word up until the very end. It's a great, almost mimed, performance. A lot of credit needs to go to newcomer Chaneac, but I can't say the credit is all hers. A lot of what goes into making Dren great is brought out by unique and graceful visual effects (notably her wings) and also the practical makeup magic of great Greg Nicotero. My only complaint about Dren's portrayal is the constant chirping noise she appears to be making. It's certainly fitting and, at times, it works very well, but there are also plenty of times where it doesn't seem to match the action, thus revealing itself to be a dubbed-in sound. Certain scenes might have been more effective and eerie if Dren were entirely silent. But that seems to be a theme with SPLICE - not knowing when to be silent.

There was too much exposition for my taste. Cutting some of it out could have shaved off some of the run time and made for a more intelligent film. We get that Elsa has mommy-issues simply from the scene where she looks through her keepsakes. That point does not need to be fleshed out as it is. Elsa's desire to have Dren for a child instead of a real child is probably one of the more interesting things in the film and it could have been gleaned by anyone who just considered the evidence, Clive doesn't need to spell out the reasons. It's also apparent that Dren's human DNA donor was Elsa, that discussion too could have been left out. Film's often have a hard time finding a nice balance between spoken and inferred exposition. Some films just don't know how to convey information without dialogue, that's not the case here though. SPLICE's spoken exposition is merely redundant. Natali just needs a bit more faith in his direction and a little less in his script.

My favorite thing about the direction of the film was how the three leads' relationship was built. The initially reluctant Clive and the overly assertive (to the point of seeming psychotic) Elsa make for interesting parents. There's definitely a lot of Freud/Jung in the film. A sexual relationship is slowly and intelligently built between Dren and her "father", an example of Freud's "feminine Oedipus" complex or Jung's Electra Complex. As the film plainly moves toward this and the eventual consummation of their sexual tension there's nothing the viewer can do but watch and squirm. Clive clearly has a screw or two loose, but his attraction to Dren has so many rational (albeit unpleasant) layers, the most obvious being that she has Elsa's DNA. The love scene is pretty awkward, but nobody batted an eye when Jake Sully went all inter-species in AVATAR.

Unfortunately, this interesting psychological dynamic had to be ruined by the final ten minutes of the film. Ol' Oedipus himself, having been ignored in favor of the less known sister-complex, had to rear his ugly head. No way could he take a backseat to Electra. Dren's abrupt sex-change is telegraphed earlier in the film, but I was still hoping it wouldn't happen. Is it a bad way to end the film? No, I guess not, it still brings up some interesting ideas, but it just wasn't necessary. It also felt rushed compared to the Electra element because it didn't have the benefit of an entire film's attention. SPLICE would have been a lot better if it ended with Dren's first apparent death. She had a certain Frankenstein quality to her, the tragic abomination, but this is shattered by the end that paints her/him as more of a monster.

I feel like this film was a missed opportunity at something truly great. It still gets points for originality and quality direction though. I look forward to seeing what Natali does next, which is reportedly an adaptation of the sci-fi classic "Neuromancer" by William Gibson. B-.

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