Splice (Vincenzo Natali 2009)
Splice is a science fiction horror film not unlike Alien, where the most interesting thing is actually the creature and its relation to us (both as viewers and humans in general), but also how the creature evolves into something different.
At heart, this is a Frankenstein story about humanity reaching for too much, the vanity of ambition, and the lack of forethought. What is different about Splice are the themes of parenting and child abuse are much stronger than the immediate questions of the ethical status of the creature. While time is spent on the ethics of making Dren, little time is spent on whether or not Dren is good or evil: the film almost implicitly assumes that she is evil, although perhaps this is due to the abuse she is subjected to.
Tense, creepy, and deeply disturbing with its emphasis on incest, the film projects a nightmare scenario of gene-splicing and the production of nonhuman creatures in the future. Yet what the film does admirably is to posit this not as a technological determinism, exactly, but rather as a very human preoccupation: we want to do this, even as we fear it. We do things because we want to, not because we can. Of course, there is a thin line between ability and desire, but it is precisely this limen that the film interrogates.
The film is clearly interested in the limits and boundaries of the human species, and what a different version of the human might look like. This idea is present when Elsa states that they are not doing human experiments, because “this will not be human. Not entirely”.
Clearly, Dren is far more adaptive than humans, capable of changing sex, amphibious, resilient, and otherwise ‘more fit’ than humans. There is an eerie undercurrent to the film that this can easily be the next step in evolution, although not exactly for humans. Rather, Dren is a new species that will eradicate and exterminate the human species.
Both Elsa and Clive are ambitious in their search for something more, something new, and when they reveal the two spliced bulbous creatures, Elsa pronounces that people will “see the origin of species”. Clearly citing Darwin, this notion brings in the full force of what this origin is, in an age of biomedia. If life itself is information and that information can be manipulated, then there is no longer any conceptual limit, only an ethical limit.
Yet at first this new origin of species is regarded as positive, as a step in the right direction, and even though the film certainly goes on to question this new origin, the ending is both ambitious and very clear. Ambiguous because we do not know what will happen, clearly Elsa will have Dren’s child. The incestuous part of life is here deeply unsettling. The ending is clear because Joan the corporate crony points out how many compounds the corporation will be patenting for years to come. That there can be any danger is trivial to the patents and the financial rewards. Here we also find the second major theme of the film, that of biomedia and capitalism.
Biomedia / Capitalism
Splice is incisive on how closely connected capitalism and biomedia really are. Life itself as information is not only a scientific opportunity, it is an opportunity for profit. Furthermore, if life is information it can be patented. When the company manager William discovers that Elsa and Clive have made a gene-spliced creature with human DNA, he points out that “it doesn’t belong to you”. He cares nothing for the ethical implications, he does not care for Dren (calling her 'it’), he only cares for the property rights and the control of these rights.
Clive’s response is not forceful, although it is significant. He says “It doesn’t belong to anyone”, thereby indicating a certain level of personhood for Dren, rather than her simply being property. At the same time, he never really confronts the notion that life can be patented, indicating that life is indeed a matter of profit and control. This, then, is the ideological conceit of the film: life itself is information, and as information it can be patented. Agency, subjectivity, and freedom are all constrained by capitalist ventures; even if we are human. Elsa and Clive only have their validation as people as long as they make a profit for the company.
Here we find the unfolding of Lyotard’s notion of the inhuman but with a terribly dystopic point of view. Lyotard’s argument is that the core of the human is, paradoxically, something inhuman. For Lyotard, this is an overflowing of boundaries, making the human subject radically unstable and open. But Splice posits something darker: that the inhuman part of the human has been co-opted by biopolitics and capitalism. We become defined through a reification of biomedia – the human is knowable and constrainable, reducible to technology and technological reproduction.
We can, then, see how such reproduction destroys the aura of the human and casts us into a posthuman world, but one which is not liberating in any way. And yet I feel, at the end of the day, that Splice does not condone this point of view. The company always come off as slightly sinister, and so we certainly do not trust their motives. At the same time, Dren is at the crux of this whole matter.
Child of Darkness
Dren holds a strange position in the film, primarily one of uncanny liminality. Her birth is a strange techno-abject birth, where she is ripped out of a metallic womb, dripping with goo and cables. Yet the baby that comes out is undeniable cute. The large eyes draw us in and the little, arm-less fawn creature is also the very image of (uncanny) cuteness. During production, this baby version of Dren was referred to as the Bambi-version, emphasizing her vulnerable nature at this stage.
As Dren grows up, she is consistently portrayed as both sweet and uncanny. Mostly we follow Elsa and Clive taking turns at abusing Dren for no real reason. The parallel between Dren and Elsa is not drawn out, and more opens up a notion that Elsa is reproducing her family patterns than producing any kind of sympathy for her. While in the end Clive acknowledges that they (he and Elsa) overstepped too many boundaries, there is little pity in store for Dren. This pity, instead, must come from us as we see the terrible things visited upon her.
Several times we are aligned with Dren’s point of view, such as when she is drowned by Clive, only to discover that she is amphibious. At other times, our identification with Dren as voyeur is darker, more dubious, but mostly we are presented with a naif who simply tries to make her way in the word. We cannot help but wonder, then, if Dren is warped by her parents and the way she is never allowed to express her own life.
In the end, then, Dren remains an ambivalent character to identify with, as she/he clearly oversteps many boundaries and taboo. Yet at the same time, Dren produces a challenge to the capitalist-controlled biomedia culture, and is definitely at times put in a position not unlike Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer, living a precarious, bare life. In this way, we pity and feel sympathy more for Dren than we do for her parents, which in the end is the great challenge of the film to us. Is humanness a matter of species or can it be (and should it be) extended to what we might call, after Donna Haraway, companion species?