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Movie Review

What if?

It's a simple question, made up of two insignificant words. But it's the question every world-shaking scientific discovery has been predicated upon. What if mold could be used to treat disease? What if we split the atom? What if we went to the moon?

Or, in the case of genetic researchers Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast, what if we spliced DNA from different animals and created a life-form the world has never seen?

That's the question Clive and Elsa (romantic partners as well as scientific peers) have answered in the forms of Fred and Ginger, the slug-like results of their genetic-engineering experiments. And they're just getting started, they think. Until the pharmaceutical company bankrolling them says it's content to extract one special protein from Clive and Elsa's creations and call it a day.

No way, Elsa says. Not now. Not with so much on the line. Like this tantalizing extrapolation: What if we spliced human DNA? Clive questions the ethics of his girlfriend's reckless suggestion. But he doesn't stop her.

The consequence is Dren.

At first, Dren—conceived and incubated in an artificial womb—looks like the fusion of a kangaroo, a mole and a dinosaur. But she grows and changes … fast. With each passing day, Dren looks more human. Soon, she's not just an experiment. She's more like a daughter.

So Clive and Elsa whisk Dren out of the lab to a deserted farm once owned by Elsa's mother. That buys them some time to figure out what happens next. Meanwhile, Dren matures into something like a beautiful young woman. Never mind her retractable wings, ape-like agility, extra leg joint and ability to breathe underwater. Oh, and her long tail.

With Dren's changes, Clive and Elsa soon realize, come more questions … the kind of questions that come after you've blown the lid off Pandora's genetic box without considering what comes next.

[Note: The following sections contain spoilers.]

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Positive Elements

When things go unimaginably wrong with Dren—in ways that Clive and Elsa scarcely could have foreseen—the message the film delivers is unequivocal: The unintended consequences of genetic manipulation are beyond anyone's ability to predict.

Early on, Elsa rationalizes her desire to combine human DNA with that of animals by telling Clive to consider all the diseases—Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, cancer—that their research might cure. In the end, however, the film strongly suggests that such rationalizations are arrogant and foolish.

Both Clive and Elsa have fleeting moments of clarity in which they try to convince each other that they've crossed taboo boundaries. "This is the disaster everyone worries about," Clive says, "a new species set loose in the world." And when Clive makes an insanely immoral choice later on, Elsa scolds harshly, "There are some things we do not do."

As the film progresses, Elsa becomes more and more emotionally unhinged, and we learn that her mother was insane and emotionally abusive. Trying to overcome her own flawed genetic heritage, however, Elsa works hard (when she's not losing her temper) to be a good "mother" to Dren. She uses Scrabble letters to teach Dren to communicate, for instance, and at times tenderly cares for Dren's needs. Elsa gives Dren a Barbie doll that Elsa's own mother had forbidden her to play with. Elsa also puts makeup on Dren as she becomes more and more human looking. Clive has some similarly tender moments with Dren, such as when he tries to teach her to dance and calms her by saying he loves her.

Spiritual Content

A brief conversation between Clive, Elsa and another colleague shrugs off the suggestion that the scientists are playing God. Speaking to an audience about their discoveries, Elsa waxes eloquent about creating new life "by design," referring to Fred and Ginger as a new "origin of the species" and a new "Adam and Eve."

Dren's eventual appearance—with wings and a pointy tail—arguably brings to mind caricatures of both angels and demons, perhaps a visual metaphor for the promise and peril of genetic tampering.

Sexual Content

While mostly clothed, Clive and Elsa have sex on a couch. We see her gyrate on top of him—as does Dren, who watches the copulating couple through a gauzy curtain. Clive notices her watching, but doesn't stop.

Dren may be part animal, but her appearance is all human from the knees up. Her bare breasts get lots of camera time when Elsa cuts her dress off to perform a gruesomely violent procedure on her. Sexually attracted to Dren, Clive at first reacts to his own feelings with shock and horror. But he gradually gives in to his lust, watching her swimming naked on a live video feed—and ultimately mating with her.

That culminating sexual scene is lengthy and explicit. It includes fondling, nudity, and graphic sexual movements and sounds. (Elsa bursts in just as Dren is climaxing.)

Then things get much, much weirder … and disturbingly darker. Dren spontaneously undergoes a mutation in which she changes into a male. He then chases Elsa down in a forest and begins tearing her clothes off and ultimately rapes her. (At this point the camera focuses on their faces.)

Violent Content

A public exhibition of Fred and Ginger goes bloodily awry when the two creatures stab and kill each other with their spiky tails. The glass cage they're in overturns and showers blood on the shocked audience.

Dren's "birth" is a vicious, gory affair in which her first act is to bite Elsa. Clive holds a struggling Dren underwater when she's fairly young. It seems as if he's trying to drown her, though eventually she begins breathing the water. When Elsa questions whether Clive knew that Dren was an amphibian, he says yes. But we still get the feeling that he was in fact trying to kill the creature they created.

Dren kills a cat with the needle-like appendage at the end of her tail. She then tries to do the same to Elsa, who resists her.

What happens next is truly shocking. After knocking Dren out with a shovel to the head, Elsa straps her to a table and tears her clothes off. Though she had been relating to Dren like a beloved daughter, Elsa now reverts to treating her like a scientific specimen. As Dren writhes in horror, pain and fear, Elsa mercilessly cuts the end of her tail off in what feels like a torture scene from one of the Saw movies.

After Dren morphs into a male, he kills two of Clive and Elsa's associates. (We see their bloodied bodies.) Clive impales Dren with a sharp tree limb. Dren returns the "favor" by killing Clive with his stinger. Elsa finishes Dren off by crushing his head with a large stone.

Crude or Profane Language

Nearly 20 f-words; half-a-dozen s-words. God's name is misused six or seven times (twice with "d‑‑n"). Jesus' name is abused three times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

One scene pictures Clive with a glass of hard liquor.

Other Negative Elements

Elsa harbors a deep rebellious streak, in part because of her damaged relationship with her now-deceased mother. That personality trait is even more volatile when combined with her scientific genius and pride. Her relationship with Clive is clearly unhealthy, as she repeatedly goads him past his reservations about what they're doing. ("Scientists push boundaries," she argues.) Eventually, Clive learns that Elsa has used her own DNA to create Dren, a secret she had kept from him.

Despite her efforts to "parent" Dren differently than her mother did with her, Elsa often disciplines Dren extremely harshly.

The movie concludes on a particularly chilling note—one that could be construed as positive if properly extrapolated, but is clearly negative when looked at from the point of view of the story's hero—Elsa. She's pregnant with Dren's hybrid genetic offspring and has apparently agreed to let the pharmaceutical company she's worked for have the baby. "You can never speak of this to anyone," a representative for the company says. "Ever." The woman praises Elsa for her willingness to take things to the "next level." Elsa wearily asks, "What's the worst that could happen?"

It's the same question she asked before beginning the experiment that created Dren.

As for the pharmaceutical company, the organization isn't motivated by humanitarian kindness. Instead, it's all about capitalizing financially on Elsa and Clive's biogenetic discoveries.

Conclusion

Splice is both obscenely and profoundly provocative as it shows us two deeply flawed people pursuing something like Promethean fire … with similar results. For me—as well as a colleague who saw the film with me—the message here is crystal clear: Don't play God.

Surprisingly, that's not exactly the way director Vincenzo Natali sees things. "I don't feel Splice makes a clear statement about whether the actions of Clive and Elsa are good or bad. Their mistakes in creating Dren are mostly well-intentioned," he says in the movie's production notes. "Clive and Elsa are smarter than they are wise, and while they play with the building blocks of life, they don't really have any deep understanding of what life is. … [And so] Dren becomes a catalyst for their own darker needs."

"Unlike Frankenstein," Natali continues, "I never perceived this film as making a statement about dangerous ground. … On the surface, the message is about what happens when you play with genetics. But at a deeper level, it's about being responsible for the things you make."

If we're going to talk thoughtfully about being responsible for the things we make, however, similar questions need to be asked about Natali's filmmaking choices. Like Mary Shelley's famous monster story, Splice grapples with the question of what it means to be human. "We watch the humans turn into monsters," Natali tells us, "as the monster reveals its humanity." But the images viewers are subjected to are nothing short of monstrous themselves.

It's hard to even know how to categorize Clive's graphic sexual coupling with Dren, for example. At the very least, it's fornication and infidelity. But it might also qualify as something close to bestiality. And perhaps closer to incest, given Clive's heretofore father-like relationship with the female creature. And then Dren swaps genders and rapes his other creator, impregnating her with … something.

"Vincenzo has a savage imagination," says the film's executive producer Guillermo del Toro (who should know what he's talking about since he's helmed Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth). "Splice is incredibly powerful and morally ambiguous. Both the creators and the creature are flawed. At stages the creature is innocent, then malevolent; the scientists are empathetic, then ruthless. In so many ways this story crosses the line."

It's as if del Toro and Natali are content to ask, "What's the worst that could happen?"

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