Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Femonomics at the Movies: Splice

The Viewer's Angle

Splice is this year's retelling of Frankenstein, and having read several reviews convincing me it was more indie-art than monster horror, I went out (not on a date - thank goodness!) opening weekend to see it. Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody play Elsa and Clive, a couple of scientists building hybrid animals in the lab using gene splicing (don't think too hard about it) to develop pharmaceuticals. Delphine Chaneac is Dren, the monster, and primarily Elsa's creation.

The movie gets off to a great start. The pacing, the creepiness, the thought-provoking images (Elsa for a moment gets trapped by an artificial womb - I don't know what it means, but it was whoa symbolism). For the first 2/3's of the film, I was engrossed. The relationships between Elsa, Dren, and Clive develop with affection and curiosity, but also undercurrents of angst and repulsion, creating the perfect foreboding tone. The audience is also supposed to feel the moral repulsion Shelley's Frankenstein produced. In Shelley's version, I always felt too sympathetic with the monster to be completely disgusted, but Splice impressively had me nauseated half the film. Not the best feeling in the world, but I'm always excited when a movie can knock me that off-balance. (For another queasy but excellent film see Enduring Love with Daniel Craig.)

All that said, the movie really falls apart in the final act, where it abandons its intellectual premises and devolves into a typically implausible and uninteresting monster movie (arms clawing out of the water, scared scientists dropping their flashlights, the whole nine yards.) I left the theater hugely disappointed, seeing the potential for a really great story squandered. All ambiguity is removed from Dren's character, making her story that much less sad and intriguing in retrospect. My two cents: unless you're looking for some cheap thrills in the theater, wait for the DVD to arrive on Netflix.

The Feminist Angle

Splice, like many horror movies, actually does pretty well from a feminist point of view. Elsa is the story's hero, and Dren the tortured monster, both female. Their relationship is also the core of the film, which easily passes the Bechdel Test. Elsa is written as a complete character (as well as Clive) with a believable professional life, personal history, and romantic relationship. She expresses ambivalence about motherhood but develops strong feelings for Dren, a more nuanced view of maternity than is explored in most movies. [Spoiler Alert] The movie does play with the Final Girl trope (discussed at length here), but subverts some of the tradition's less progressive aspects. Our Final Girl is not being allowed to survive because she's been particularly virtuous. Instead, her independence and ambition (some would say heartlessness) seem to serve her well. She is also allowed to defeat the baddie without assuming a phallus (chainsaw or gun in most movies). On the other hand, the film has to get serious demerits for inserting an entirely gratuitous rape scene.

So to conclude, Splice was almost a completely awesome totally feminist scifi morality play, but in the last 25 minutes the director squandered this potential. Is there any hope for a director's cut with an alternate ending?

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