Splice

I can’t stop thinking about Vincenzo Natali’s new SF/horror film Splice. Although narratively straightforward, thematically and emotionally it is very rich, and I am not sure how much of it I was able to grasp in just one viewing. Kim has a great discussion of the film, to which my own discussion here is greatly indebted. As often happens, Splice seems to be one of those cases in which my own enthusiasm is not generally shared either by the critics or the fanboys. The movie seems not to have performed as well at the box office during its first weekend as the studio had hoped (it earned $7.4M, well below pre-weekend projections of $12M — figures from boxofficeguru.com). It’s also gotten fairly mixed reviews, at best. (For a representative sample of fan-based negative reactions, see the comments to Annalee Newitz’s largely favorable review). Interestingly, reviewers’ complaints mostly have to do with the movie’s ending; but where some critics dismiss the ending as a lapse into the most predictable and hoary genre cliches, others deplore it as being beyond the pale, absolutely reprehensible and unbearable. I find this split to be symptomatic of a certain confusion on the part of viewers and critics who remain anxious about whether genre pieces can truly be embraced as works of art. In fact, Splice never departs from being a genre film; but the way it twists genre conventions is powerful and original.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW, OBVIOUSLY]

Most obviously, Splice addresses our hopes and anxieties concerning the prospects of genetic engineering and transhumanism. It draws upon, yet also subtly undermines, both extremes of opinion regarding these issues. On the one hand, there are the utopian dreams of human self-transcendence, of tweaking our own genome in order to become stronger, smarter, and more than human. On the other hand, there are the cautionary moralisms warning us against transgressing limits, violating the natural order, and usurping the role of God. Though Splice can be understood as a cautionary tale, it finally puts no more credence in the latter of these opinions than it does in the former. Actually, the film is disillusioning, or deflationary, with regard to our sense that technological advances Change Everything, whether for the better or for the worse. The film suggests that both our hopes and our fears are greatly exaggerated; and that technocentrism ignores too much, both about social structures and about ourselves. Splice is (quite unusually, for speculative films today) anti-apocalyptic, although in a way that is grim rather than reassuring.

Splice has familiar genre coordinates. It reworks motifs from (among other obvious sources) Frankenstein, Eraserhead, and Cronenberg’s early biohorror films. But it reworks these motifs, by placing them in the context of today’s computerized and corporate-financed biotechnology. Even when the scientist works alone and in secrecy, she is entangled in social and economic circumstances that would have been unthinkable for the Victor Frankenstein either of Mary Shelley’s novel, or of James Whale’s films for Universal. It remains noteworthy, however, that the main characters in Splice take their names from the Universal films. Meet Elsa (played by Sarah Polley, and named after Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and The Bride in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein) and her partner Clive (played by Adrian Brody, and named after Colin Clive, who played Victor Frankenstein in both of Whale’s films). Elsa and Clive are science-superstar biochemists, with boho-hipster sensibilities and a rebellious streak. They live for their cutting-edge research, and don’t seem to have much in the way of lives outside it. Their home is not a lavish mansion, but a hip but grungy, run-down downtown loft. And they don’t have sex very often; they (and especially Elsa) are always too busy with work. Elsa and Clive are living, walking embodiments of a sort of nerd chic, that has become one of the myths of contemporary society (though the film works to make us skeptical as to what sort of work this myth actually does). Working in a lab provided for them by a Big Pharma company, Elsa and Clive splice genes to make hybrid organisms, whose use is to secrete marketable pharmeceuticals. But their real passion is not the meds (which is what the company has hired and bankrolled them for), but the thrill of creating new forms of life. They are always arguing with their corporate overlords, who want to see something profitable now; whereas they demand creative freedom in their research, which they unconvincingly claim will pay off for the company in the long run. We are given a familiar opposition — Creatives vs. The Man, or entrepreneurial initiative vs. corporate/bureaucratic fossilization — which will be thoroughly deconstructed in the course of the film.

Splice begins with a prosthetic childbirth scene, as Elsa and Clive “deliver” a new organism they have created. We see the whole process from the newborn creature’s own POV, as enters into the world, by being drawn out of the incubator, or artificial womb, in which it was first encased. It’s all very sticky and oozy, and the camera’s POV-from-the-birth-canal feels claustrophobic. (One might compare the POV here to the POV-from-inside-the-gas-tank-as-Gerard-Butler-pisses-into-it shot in Neveldine/Taylor’s Gamer). The creature given birth to in this way is a gross and enormous slug-like organism, looking to me like nothing so much as a gigantic turd (though others have seen it as phallic). This specimen, we are told, is a female; Elsa and Clive immediately plop it in a tank with a previously-created male of the same invented species, and the two proceed to copulate, or at least “imprint” on one another. (It is noteworthy that the film only imagines heterosexual attractions and relations. While it may well be that Natali simply fails to entertain other erotic possibilities, I think that — as will become more evident later — the film’s insistence upon a compuslory, and indeed compulsive, heterosexuality is actually a big part of its point).

The grotesquerie and messiness of the turd/phallic thingies contrasts with the generally sterile, high-tech look of the lab in which they are produced — all the scenes that take place here are shot in with an uninviting bluish glow. The lab continues to feel sterile even at crisis moments when tanks and test tubes get smashed, material falls off the shelves, etc. (One of the strongest resemblances between Splice and early Cronenberg has to do with its portrayal of the grim sterility of official corporate spaces and architectures). These genetically engineered organisms may be ugly, but they do indeed produce the chemicals that the Big Pharma bosses need. The problem is that Elsa and Clive are bored with the thought of merely taking the extraction process to its conclusion, by isolating the important proteins and maximizing their production. They want more; or more precisely, Elsa does, as she is both the true genius, and the active, enterprising one, of the pair. So, without the authorization or knowledge of the corporate bosses, and even in the face of laws that explicitly prohibit it, Elsa soon takes the next step, growing a transgenic organism that includes human DNA together with that of other organisms. She tells Clive that the DNA is from an unidentified “Jane Doe”; but he later figures out that it is in fact her own.

There is clearly something narcissistic and self-obsessed here; all the more so when we learn that Clive wants to have a child, but Elsa is reluctant. She’s the one who would have to become pregnant, after all. The film doesn’t judge this, and indeed suggests that Elsa is moved both by a legitimate worries about the gender inequality involved, and how this would interfere with her work and career, and by a kind of squeamishness about her own body, however down and dirty she is able to get with the animal bodies she creates. This is the aspect of the film that most directly references, and rewrites, Frankenstein. Instead of a man who seeks to create new life without feminine mediation, we get a woman who produces new life while replacing her womb with a technological prosthesis — a substitution that also allows her more complete control over which genetic material gets mixed with her own. (And indeed, it is arguable that the mixed species DNA that Elsa uses — evidently including fish, amphibian, reptile, and bird components, though it is hard to say whether any invertebrate material is also included — is far superior to any DNA that the rather creepy Clive could provide).

The gender switch makes for a very different sort of Prometheanism than Mary Shelley envisaged. Frankenstein revolves around issues of patriarchal fiat. It is also centered on Victor’s disgust at working with putrefying dead matter; since the monster is made by revivifying this dead matter, it is no wonder that the monster turns out to be an ugly and terrifying figure. It’s as if Victor’s moral failure is the consequence of a previous aesthetic failure or mistake. Victor sees everything maternal or feminine as a “filthy workshop of creation,” and this disgust spills over into his own prosthetic creation of life as well. Splice, however, “feminizes” this process, and gives us maternal relations between creator and monster instead of paternal ones. The movie has to do with questions of intimacy, continuity, and trust, instead of with ones of disgust. Abject, matter-based technologies are replaced by (relatively) cleaner computer-based ones, in which matter is not so much treated with horror, as it is distanced and made manipulable through being regarded as merely information or digital code. Elsa may not want to give birth physically, but the logic of her displacement of maternity into a computer-mediated process does not have the Manichean overtones one finds in Frankenstein. Splice seems to take for granted the affinities between constructions of femininity and technoculture. Infotech with its horizontal networks is far different from the older, hierarchical and patriarchal, structure of science and technology; though this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is “freer” or less oppressive.

Of course, Splice‘s focus upon a woman instead of a man as the “mad scientist” figure whose creations ultimately lead to catastrophe has been quite a point of contention. Some bloggers have seen the film in anti-feminist backlash terms, on the grounds that Elsa is punished by the narrative for being too uppity. But this seems to me to be wrong, and based in an overly literal-minded take on the film, not to mention regarding it as far more moralizing than it actually is. I am inclined to think that the film is on-target in the way that it suggests that a certain “feminization” is at work in our current digitally-based regime — without implying that this actually translates into actual equality for women. Most other films that approach this sort of territory — I am thinking of Cronenberg’s earlier films, but also of something like Fight Club — tend to see the development of prosthetic or virtual embodiment, and the leveling, horizontal tendencies of network culture, as leading to crises of masculine subjectivity. Splice seems to me to be refreshingly free of this sort of retro, conservative anxiety. It takes recent shifts in gender politics — especially as they relate to the workplace — for granted, without nostalgia for the good old days of male supremacy (cf. Mad Men), but also without imagining that this somehow means that gender equality has actually been achieved. — But all this is really a subject for another essay.

I should also note that the digitization of the flesh has deep consequences in the narrative of Splice. Gender itself is a binary — male/female — which means, in digital terms, that it can easily be flipped from one state to the other. The sudden transformation of a transgenic organism from female to male — something that actually happens in many species of fish — becomes a major plot point and thematic concern in Splice. One of the movie’s highlights is the comedic-horror scene where Elsa and Clive are demonstrating their success with the sluglike thingies to the stockholders, press, and public. They put the two beasties in the same tank; but instead of copulating as before, they fight to the death, smashing up everything in the process and raining blood and gore over the audience. It turns out that the female organism had flipped over to male, without Elsa and Clive noticing. And males, of course, must always be aggressive and fight one another. What’s significant here, I think, is the combination of utterly stereotyped norms (of what males and females supposedly always do, regardless of species) and the utter arbitrariness of their expression (one of the gender terms can flip over into the other, without motivation, just like that). As in all the other cases I mention, the juxtaposition of assumptions is so telling that I think that all this is not a flaw or limit to the film, but something that the film is itself quite self-conscious about.

After some experimentation, the transhuman splice is fertilized and then born — it bursts traumatically out of its sac or artificial womb, long before it should have been ready. This is the first of several traumatic ruptures in the course of the movie. One could easily regard this in Freudian/Lacanian terms; but I prefer to see it, more generally, as having to do with the lack of fit between information and embodiment, or between genotype (what is “written” in the DNA) and phenotype (the actual living body that is ostensibly “programmed” by that DNA). In general, I would want to argue that Freudian Nachträglichkeit and Lacanian “prematurity of birth” are themselves not primordial formations, but merely derivatives of the more general situation — not restricted to human beings — in which what determines, codes, or “preforms” a given body is never adequate to the full range of “what a body can do.” Here, Spinoza and Deleuze must come before Freud and Lacan. Elsa knows precisely how she has coded the new transhuman organism that she creates; but she still does not know, and cannot know in advance, how it will grow and change, how it will act, and what it will feel. As Natali puts it in a recent interview: Elsa and Clive “understand life in its chemical form, but they don’t really understand the essence of what life means, what life is. And that’s where things go wrong.”

In any case, the birth of the new entity isn’t premature, so much as it is a reflection of the fact that the very nature of this new entity involves a continual getting-ahead-of-itself. It has an alarming vitality, which translates into both an accelerated developmental span, and a progress through several larval forms, metamorphosing from one to the next in stages. The new entity apparently recycles some of the DNA from Elsa’s previous creations. Nonetheless, it — or rather, as we quickly learn, she — has a backbone, and isn’t a slug. We get a chimera that starts out very animalistic, but that becomes more human as she grows up. Elsa immediately adopts a stereotypically “maternal” attitude towards this new being. Clive wants to destroy the larva, but Elsa cuddles and encourages it/her, thereby winning its/her trust. There is a very peculiar and interesting thing going on here, and throughout the film: Natali thoroughly mixes together (or “confuses”) those sorts of attitudes, gestures, and behaviors that our ideology tells us are “natural,” with those which, being the immediate product of high technology, are manifestly “artificial.” The result is to destabilize our habitual binary between the two. Either the splice is herself just as “natural” as any other biological organism; or else Elsa’s supposedly “intuitive” maternal behavior is just as “artificial” as the genetically engineered organism. In our hyper-technologized world, and precisely because of all this technology rather than in spite of it, any nature/culture or natural/artificial distinction breaks down. This has the effect of undermining our currently hegemonic biological determinism (tracing all qualities and behaviors back to “the genes” or to DNA) as much as it does so-called “social constructionism.” The fact that we now how such extreme power in manipulating DNA does not mean that DNA determines everything — indeed, quite the contrary is the case.

As the splice grows up, Elsa eventually names her Dren, which is “nerd” spelled backwards — a kind of ironic self-reference, as Elsa sees Dren as an offshoot or rearrangement of herself. (The theme of rearrangement is emphasized by the way in which “nerd” is first spelled out in Scrabble ® tiles; “dren” is then the result of looking at these tiles upside down). Dren is hairless, but with a largely human face and upper body, bird-like legs that can be articulated in several directions and with claws for feet, a tail that ends with a stinger, and the ability to extrude and withdraw wings at will. I think that one of the brilliant aspects of the film is the way that it positions Dren in between the allure of the enticingly unfamiliar, and the frightfulness of the truly alien. When fully grown, Dren is played by Delphine Chanéac, whose digitally-altered body has been carefully tweaked by Natali to maximize a sense of “exotic” beauty and mystery, in a way that is just barely this side of a creepy “uncanny valley” effect. (I put “exotic” in scare quotes in order to call attention to the often racist/colonialist implications of the term; Chanéac is white, and French, but the makeup and digital effects alter her just enough to “other” her). This presentation allows the white male heterosexual viewer (if I am at all representative) to be suspended just at the precise point in between voyeuristic drooling lust on the one hand, and castration anxiety on the other. As I will soon explain, this is crucial within the diegesis itself, as well as outside it for the normative viewer.

As befits this “exotic” or alien portraiture, Dren remains largely inscrutable both to her creators and to us the viewers. We never get “inside” Dren’s mind anytime in the film. Some critics have seen this as a defect in the movie, but I think that it is poignant and effective. Her facial expressions do indeed communicate, at different points in the course of the film, such feelings as contentment, fear and dread, and anger. But none of this is ever made entirely concrete. Dren is highly intelligent. She evidently comes to understand human language; she clearly comprehends and responds to the English that Elsa and Clive speak to her. But she is apparently unable to speak; evidently Elsa failed to provide her with the genes that would have allowed for the development of human vocal cords — an omission that may well be symptomatic. For it guarantees Dren’s outsider status, and her subordination; she will always be enough of an animal that she cannot be regarded as superhuman.

Dren communicates, occasionally, by arranging Scrabble ® tiles into words. Elsa and Clive are thrilled when this happens, because it is sign of her high intelligence. But they don’t seem at all interested in the content of what she tries to tell them. They are too invested in studying her scientifically, in disciplining her properly, and in securing her from the risk of discovery. All too much in accord with contemporary scientific ideology, they are intrigued by Dren exclusively in cognitive terms. They don’t have any sense of her affectively; they don’t even know to look for her feelings, let alone to try to consider how they might work. This is all the more the case, in that Elsa’s and Clive’s own behavior is equally incomprehensible to themselves. Elsa and Clive, no less than Dren, are driven by affects that are out of their control or even of their awareness. They do not look at Dren’s affectivity, precisely because they are unable to comprehend even their own affectivity. And this is not just a personal failing of theirs; it is a symptomatic consequence of the cognitivist assumptions of the contemporary biological and behavioral sciences in general.

The import of all this is that Dren’s inability to speak is itself an expression of her existential situation. She cannot speak, in effect, because she cannot help feeling like an alien or an Other even to herself. (Clearly we need to reject the Lacanian assumption that it is somehow language which “alienates” us as subjects; this assumption rests on the unjustified anthropocentric belief that non-human or non-linguistic beings are somehow simply “natural,” simply immediate, simply at one with the world, unaware of mortality, etc. Dren is alienated by the way that she only has a partial and oblique relation to language; this relates to what I said above about trauma and prematurity not being exclusively human experiences or attributes). Dren is brought up in isolation, she is effectively abused, and there is no other being who is anything like her. When she spells out the word TEDIOUS in Scrabble ® tiles, in order to complain of her boredom and frustration at being locked up alone and not allowed even to go outside, Elsa and Clive respond simply by dismissing her complaint; doesn’t she know that they cannot risk letting her outside, since nobody must know of her existence?

Most of the movie is taken up with Elsa’s “mothering” of Dren, with Clive as the somewhat distant father figure. And this is where any prejudice that “mothering” might be “natural,” or inherently “feminine,” or inherently hardwired in Elsa’s, or any woman’s, genes, definitively breaks down. For Elsa engages in a kind of arbitrary, schizophrenic parenting style that would be enough to drive any child crazy, let alone one as “gifted” and “different” as Dren. At one moment, Elsa is exceedingly warm towards Dren, drawing her out of her scared shell and winning her trust; and then at the next moment she is overly severe in her disciplining of Dren, on the basis of distinctions between permitted and forbidden behavior that Dren clearly cannot understand (and that no child or teenager would ever be able to understand). For instance, Dren at one point adopts a stray cat, as a compensation for her boredom and loneliness. But Elsa takes the cat away from Dren, berating her for doing something unsafe (which seems to mean, both something that might expose Dren to discovery by other people than Elsa and Clive, and something that might interfere with the level of control Elsa needs in order to study Dren as a scientific experiment). A few scenes later, however, Elsa changes her mind, and brings back the cat, returning it to Dren as a “present,” and a sign of her (Elsa’s) warmth and affection. This is clearly just as incomprehensible to Dren as the original gesture of taking the cat away had been. Confused and panicked by the erratic nature of Elsa’s affection, Dren freaks out and kills the cat by stinging it with her tail. Elsa — in a rage all the more disquieting for being kept under wraps by an external calm — responds by physically restraining Dren, and subjecting her to (unsuccessful) surgery to remove the stinger. Castration, anyone? This is yet another moment of violence and trauma for Dren; and another moment to which Elsa remains completely oblivious. She is entirely unable to notice or understand her own effect upon her “daughter.”

Throughout the relationship between Elsa and Dren, therefore, intimacy is tied together with a horrific sense of violation. In Polley’s amazing performance, Elsa’s fucked-up parenting is utterly horrific, and yet entirely understandable from the inside. For Elsa is nothing if not well-intentioned; and she herself is also a victim of her own mother’s crazy abuse of her, when she was a child. Elsa mentions her past history as an abused child several times in the course of the movie; yet she thinks nothing of hiding or imprisoning Dren within the very walls in which she (Elsa) grew up and suffered this abuse. (We even get to see the spartan room, much like a prison cell, that was Elsa’s childhood bedroom). Thus Elsa troublingly (but not unsurprisingly) replicates, with Dren, all the ways that her mother mistreated her. But even when Elsa explicitly tries to do the opposite with Dren from what her mother did to her, the results are problematic and messed up. Thus Elsa gives Dren a Barbie doll which she had loved as a child, but which her mother had taken away from her. Elsa also has Dren wear baby-doll dresses and put on makeup. The Barbie doll, the dresses, and the makeup have the effect of “humanizing” Dren, making her over in accordance with human norms — which in this case means, in effect, making Dren stereotypically “feminine.” Even worse, the sexy-alien Dren gives off something close to a pederastic vibe.

In this way, all-too-human (by which I mean, culturally specific) gender roles are oddly reinforced, precisely when we are supposed to be getting beyond the human. Yet again, the film entirely scrambles our sense of what is natural and what is artificial, or of what is innate and “genetic”, and what is implanted or learned. We often reflexively assume the idea that nature, or the given/innate, is inherently deterministic and programmed (“hardwired”), while culture — that which is invented, transmitted through language and behavior, and which can be learned — allows for the possibility of difference. But Splice entirely reverses this dynamic. Dren is radically new and different, as far as her genetic endowment is concerned; but Elsa (and Clive) work to contain this difference within the cultural norms that they take for granted without question. And indeed, the film as a whole plays on the way that we, too, take these norms for granted; they are built into our genre expectations, which regulate how we take both the film’s form and its content. This is also the reason why the film is, as I noted before, heterosexual with a vengeance: it depressingly chronicles the ways that, faced with the prospect of difference, novelty, or radical otherness, we try to reduce this difference to the same, to police it and regulate it by inserting it within these pre-assumed norms. The film highlights these normative aspects (of cinematic genre, of socially-enacted gender, and of assumptions about what is natural and what is artificial) in a way that makes us troublingly conscious of them, instead of just letting them go “without saying.”

I should say something here about Clive as well as Elsa. She is the main mover and shaker of the couple; but his role as enabler should not be ignored. He is in fact is exceedingly creepy, without this ever quite coming out up-front. He simultaneously objects to all of Elsa’s transgressions, and yet helps to further them by his attitude and actions. All this is captured in Brody’s excellent performance, which really makes me squirm. Clive is a passive enabler, while at the same time disavowing this role by coming off as a (fake) voice of moderation and reason — despite the fact that he is evidently every bit as crazy as Elsa is. Clive encourages Elsa, while at the same time doing this in such a way that she must take responsibility, or take the fall, when anything backfires. Beneath the veneer of hipness and reasonableness, he is really a self-righteous prick. He sits back and lets Elsa take the initiative and maneuver them both into difficult situations. Then he objects, but at the same time provides evidence that there is no way out. He manages, therefore, both to express moral qualms and yet to use those qualms as an alibi for the fact that he is really excited by what Elsa is doing, and that he is desperate to get involved.

This also relates to the fact that Elsa and Clive turn out not to be the perfect couple that they seemed to be at the start of the film. I have already mentioned that they rarely have sex, and that this seems to be something of an issue for Clive. The one time in the film that they do get it on, it becomes sort of a primal scene for Dren, who sees them in the act without their being aware that she is viewing. them. But beyond this, all the tensions between Elsa and Clive get acted out in relation to Dren, and are directly projected onto Dren. She both becomes the alibi for, and suffers the consequences of, their instabilities and their lack of self-knowledge. In addition, all the traditional Frankenstein/SF arguments about morality, responsibility, the limits of knowledge, etc., are taken up in Elsa’s and Clive’s arguments; which has the effect of undermining the discursive force of the arguments, since they so clearly become masks or alibis for the couple’s own feelings, which they are quite obviously not at all in touch with.

All of this comes to a head in the third act of the film. This is the part that, as I mentioned above, some reviewers deplore as a capitulation to Hollywood/exploitation norms; while others condemn it as ugly and nasty, morally unacceptable, horrifically misogynistic, etc. I am inclined to think that these incompatible responses are symptomatic of the way that Natali has touched nerves, and thereby done something right. A conventional macho action film, with its taken-for-granted misogyny, would never get denounced for being “a thoroughly repulsive science fiction-horror flick that slicks up its B-movie tawdriness with high-gloss production values and two otherwise classy stars… a singularly cynical enterprise, exploiting our anxieties about reproduction, parenthood, control and betrayal while engaging in the crudest forms of sensationalism” (Ann Hornaday, in The Washington Post). I think that the ending of Splice succeeds both in fulfilling the pre-assumed requirements of the genre (there has to be a climax of violent monstrosity, in which all the creepy suggestions raised earlier in the film are pushed to a point of extremity, and, perhaps, catharsis), and in working through the logic of its premises — which, as I have been suggesting, have to do with the uses and abuses of technology, with both the creation of otherness and the attempt to contain and reduce it, with the regendering of processes in global, highly technologized capitalism, and with the relation of innovation and creativity to corporate control and corporate property.

In the third act, there are two significant — highly disturbing, and even shocking — events. The first one is that Clive has sex with Dren, in a way that is psychologically suggestive of incest. The attraction is apparently mutual. Dren, having been “feminized” by Elsa, and put off by the violent abusiveness of Elsa’s treatment of her, seems to idealize Clive as the more distant, and therefore less painfully-associated, authority or parental figure. There is something perversely innocent (oxymoron entirely intended, since it is something that at once seems childlike and yet is very post-puberty-aware and erotic) about Dren’s desire for Clive. On Clive’s part, the desire seems shifty and creepy in the same way that all his actions and affects have been throughout the film. He first formulaically tells Dren that we cannot do this, only to respond avidly to her allure a moment later.

Clive claims — sincerely,as far as we can tell, in his lack of knowledge of himself — to be attracted to Dren because of the way she reminds him of Elsa. He disavows the other elements of her appeal: for Dren, of course, is more sexy than Elsa on account of being younger, not tied to her work the way Elsa is, not Clive’s evident intellectual superior the way Elsa is (though we don’t know the level of Dren’s intelligence for sure) — not to mention that, of course, Dren’s not-entirely-human makeup makes her thrillingly exotic/unknown in a way Elsa could not be. Clive is able to enact, in other words, the fantasy relation to Dren that (as mentioned above) the film produces for the normative male-heterosexual spectator. In fact, Clive’s coming on to Dren, and his self-understanding about doing this, simply replicates the most boring and banal, and most common, scenario of heterosexual-male psychodrama imaginable. It’s a syndrome that forms the basis of far too many melodramas and far too many real-life divorces (not to mention its featured role in award-winning movies like American Beauty, and in prominent real-life careers like that of Bill Clinton). It bespeaks a kind of self-blindness that could only come out of (unacknowledged) privilege. In the (fairly explicit) way that the movie presents this sexual act, it is shocking, jolting, and disturbing, and yet at the same time disappointing: as if this extravagant, transgressive act were at the same time the enactment of a failure to change, a failure to get anywhere, a failure to do anything different from business (and prejudice) as usual. My sense of the film is that, precisely, Natali manages to have it both ways: to give us the genre-specific thrills that we need and expect, and to make a meta-commentary which precisely turns on the the oppressive sameness of what the genre gives us.

Of course, Elsa walks in on Clive and Dren while they are in the midst of fucking: this, again, is both a genre necessity, and acutely true to the strained and messy psychodynamics of the entire film. Elsa is angered and disgusted; she walks out and drives home — but first she stops at the lab in order to do the banal protein sequencing that the corporate bosses had demanded of her all along, and that she had previously considered beneath her. Apparently Dren’s DNA coding, no less than that of the slug-like creatures, causes her to produce and secrete the meds that the Big Pharma company wanted in the first place. And this is apparently the first thing that Elsa thinks of, in her rage that Dren and Clive have betrayed her.

When Clive goes after Elsa and tries to explain what happened, she tells him: “you aren’t going to talk your way out of this one.” But in fact, Clive succeeds in talking his way out of trouble within just about two minutes of screen time. Clive convinces Elsa that the rules have changed, that they have both overstepped limits, etc. etc. It becomes clear to the audience that neither Clive nor Elsa has learned anything whatsoever from all that has happened to them, and to their creation. Worried about further consequences, and at least sensing the need for damage control, they return to the farmhouse/barn where they had left Dren.

The very ending of the film pushes all this contradiction and tension to its most extreme point. For the second significant, and disturbing happening in the third act is that Dren (quite predictably, in genre terms) turns monstrous and murderous. But there’s more: Dren’s turn towards homicidal behavior is correlated with her shifting gender from female to male (just as slug-like creature did earlier in the film). The male Dren-creature murders Clive and some secondary characters, and concludes by raping Elsa. This is also the notable point when Dren — turned male — speaks a word for the first and only time in the movie. The word has trouble coming out of his throat; the Dren-organism’s difficulty with articulating spoken language still remains. The barely articulated word is “inside.” Male Dren wants to enter/penetrate/fuck/rape Elsa; but also, perhaps, he wants to return to the womb, to an ultimate inner place where the outside world cannot harm him. It makes no difference that, in fact, Dren’s original womb was not literally Elsa’s, but a prosthetic one. The whole film has worked through an ambivalently aggressive dynamics in relation to technologies of reproduction, and now this is all quite horrifically and nastily literalized and embodied — in a way that collapses back on Elsa, the originator of these dynamics, and now their victim.

As before, I think it makes sense to see this rape scene in relation or contrast to Frankenstein. In the original novel, the monster, denied his own possibilities of sexuality and reproduction, murders his creator’s bride, but leaves that creator himself uninjured, to stew in his own regrets and guilt. In Splice, Elsa suffers a worse fate than Victor Frankenstein; I think indeed that this is because she is a woman, but (as noted before) I take this, not as evidence that the film is misogynistic, but precisely as an indication that misogyny is part of the situation that the film reveals, and of which it offers a diagnosis. Frankenstein’s transgression of the laws of God and Man has been transformed into Elsa’s pseudo-transgression, which ends up only reinforcing the order it had seemed to be rebelling against. Elsa has worked throughout the film to create life prosthetically, to give birth to and raise a being that transcended the limitations of the human order. But (as her confusions and failures in parenting Dren have shown), she proves unequal to this task, and ends up reproducing the same all-too-human (and in fact culturally as well as genetically determined and limited) order that she had thought to get beyond. Which is why, at the end, she is reduced to the limited role of having/being a womb and nothing but a womb, after all. She manages to destroy the “monster” that she has created, but only after it has inseminated her (in effect, returning to her the burden she had imposed upon it).

A sort of epilogue shows Elsa, pregnant and evidently close to term, signing everything away to the corporation, in return for ample (we presume) financial considerations. She would seem to be giving the corporation both her scientific expertise and the contents of her womb (produced, presumably, by the rape, though we do not know this for sure); the distinction between them has entirely collapsed. And this is the saddest and most horrific thing in the entire film — much more so than anything having to do with Dren. Whatever the film has to say about gender and familialism, everything is overcoded by the reality of corporate ownership. Property and profit come first. It’s significant that the corporate boss with whom Elsa negotiates this abdication of power is also a woman: as if to explicitly show us both that there is nothing special about a woman-to-woman bond, and that the regime of captial is always ready to allow exceptions to conventional hierarchies without thereby ceasing to rule. Elsa can be a successful scientist, and a woman can be the CEO of a Big Pharma company; but these individual exceptions or exemptions don’t ever rock the boat. Corporate power is what bought Elsa and Clive their lab with its high tech machines in the first place; and corporate power accumulates the profits that are generated with the help of that lab and its machines. Elsa’s and Clive’s creative surplus does not belong to them, and never did. Movies in the last three decades of the twentieth century tended to figure corporate power in terms of vast conspiracies (this has been discussed at length by Fredric Jameson, and more recently by Jeff Kinkle here). But in 2010, there is no longer any need for a conspiracy in order to explain corporate dominance. The corporation is just there, a banal fact that is not in the least bit hidden, and that everybody takes for granted without even thinking about it.

Indeed, I think that we can go further, and say that Elsa and Clive’s whole hipster/boho/rebellious vibe not only doesn’t threaten the reign of capital (or Big Pharma in this case), but also actively helps to maintain it, and may even be necessary to its functioning. It’s not just because the hipster-rebellious genius image appeals to disaffected arty-intellectual types like me, and thereby helps (just as “cool” corporations like Apple, Google, and Starbucks do) to draw me into a more active and engaged complicity with the mechanisms of capital accumulation. But beyond this (and on a more fundamental level than that of mere “ideology”), techno-innovators and “creatives” like Elsa and Clive both provide the corporations with continual streams of innovation and insure that these innovations will be channeled in normative and profitable ways. Old Deleuze/Guattari enthusiasts like me have tended to privilege, celebrate, and idealize flows of becoming, monstrous metamorphoses, and lines of flight and escape from the normative and the all-too-human. At times in our enthusiasm, we would tend to forget Deleuze and Guattari’s own warnings that capitalism recuperates (“reterritorializes” and “recodes”) whatever crazy, destabilizing fluxes it unleashes.

But Splice suggests that the relation between capitalism’s “creativity” and its recuperations is even more intimate. It’s not that Elsa and Clive create something radically new, and then desperately try to recuperate it within conventional or normative parameters. Rather, the normalizing drive is at the heart of their “creativity.” Elsa doesn’t secondarily familialize a transgenic creation that initially threatens to escape her control and that of the conventional gender coordinates. It is rather the case that she develops the transgenic creation in the first place in order to produce a body upon which those conservative, familiar and familialist coordinates may be inscribed. She rebels against corporate management in order to fulfill its aims better than that management would be able to do by itself. Her very choice of private, emotionally meaningful goals instead of externally-imposed corporate ones is a vital and necessary element of the corporate seach for ever-expanding profits. In this way, Splice suggests that the fantasy of transgressive genius, the dream of liberating metamorphosis, and the dedication to personal fulfillment, are themselves adjuncts to, and enablers of, corporate power.

Or, to use a biological metaphor here, Splice suggests that evolution is only the result of the essential conservativism (drive to self-preservation and self-perpetuation) of “life.” Mutations happen, and grow within a population, not out of any drive for change, but precisely because life’s only goal is to replicate and multiply itself, to continually reproduce itself as the same. Whatever does the best job of this flourishes. Biotechnology’s current vision is bloodless, rationalistic, cognitivist and computational. Splice challenges this vision, by suggesting that it must ultimately be brought back into contact with a politics of affect, of the visceral, and of the body. But the film is deeply disillusioning, in that it further suggests that the movement back to affect and the body doesn’t have anything emancipatory about it. Rather than moralistically warning against the dangers of experimentation beyond socially acceptable limits, Splice suggests that such experimentation itself works to return to and reinforce those limits, so that it is inherently disappointing. Indeed, we are never imaginative enough.

15 Responses to “Splice”

  1. Joan Hawkins says:

    I just saw the film yesterday and am still trying to work my way through it, and so am very grateful for this very smart, thorough and complete critical response.

    One of the most distressing moments in the film, for me, was the scene in which Elsa tries to amputate the stinger from Dren’s tail. The actual surgery is horrible enough, but there’s that extremely creepy moment just prior when she speaks into her recorder, saying something about Dren’s violence being due to inappropriate gender patterning or identification (I only saw it the once, so don’t have the actual quote). The subsequent ripping away of the dress traumatizes Dren– but there is also something so gender-hostile about it on Elsa’s part. Part of the act seems to be directed at reducing Dren to “creature” status, but some of it also seemed so much like the crazy stuff that can go on between moms and their newly adolescent daughters.AND it reminds me also of one of the most distressing moments in the PRIME SUSPECT series, when Jane, displeased with an informant– a man beginning to transition gender– and forces her to use the men’s lavatory (where the woman attempts to commit suicide)– something about that term that was used “gender—” At any rate, this is a great essay, Steve– and thanks for posting. I thought of Cronenberg almost the entire time I was watching the film– in part because Splice seems so smart, even during the times when I thought it was faltering or in danger of going off course. And– as is clear from this very messy post- caused all sorts of little riffs and connections that I’m still trying to sort.

  2. Thanks for this comment, Joan. Since I have also only seen the film once, I had forgotten — until reading your comment — about Elsa’s speaking into her recorder, and commenting about “gender patterning”, as she performs the operation on Dren.

    I’ve never seen the Prime Suspect series — I will have to give it a look.

  3. Chris Vitale says:

    I must say I not only love getting recs for films worth seeing (‘Gamer’ was also a great tip I wouldn’t have seen otherwise), but also the sheer enthusiasm for psychoanalytic horror film readings, something which I also do with relish. Its a nice respite from OOO, I must say! Thanks for the insights, look forward to seeing this.

  4. Lance P King says:

    Great review. I’m really not sure if I want to see this film. Your synopsis was thoroughly traumatic.

    But I was interested in the idea of the prohibition against human genetic experimentation under the law (in the film). This, and the banal work that the genius scientists are made to perform, seems tortuous, whipping Elsa and Clive into a frenzy of desire that can never be satisfied. It seems an almost self-fulfilling prophecy that they will transgress the prohibition – given that in their case, the desire (as foreshadowed by their sexual relationship) is a lack (the Lacanian view) rather than being full to the brim of itself.

    The figure of the corporation as banal – while true – is ambiguous. At the end, they get to sweep in and reap all the benefits of the illicit research, immunised against the consequences of the law and of ethics. In the end, the corporation is the figure which stands out as the beneficiary of this sequence of events. So whether or not they intentionally orchestrated this (you referred to the conspiracy perspective, which would emphasise this remote puppeteering), they were agile enough to take advantage of it.

    I also found it interesting that you linked the ‘big pharma’ corporate model – what is self-evidently capitalism – and the hipster ‘subculture’. Brands thus made cool (Apple, etc.) render invisible the capitalist agenda the ‘cool’ corporation represents, pretty powerful marketing I think. While Deleuze and Guattari may warn ‘that capitalism recuperates … whatever crazy, destabilizing fluxes it unleashes’, in this case it never has to recuperate anything because it was always already incorporated, only its signs appear to hang on the fringe. And this is an ideal state of affairs for capitalism.

    I think it was Baudrillard who said ‘All scandal pays homage to the law’. Maybe this is why the film’s ending is anti-apocalyptic, because apocalypse (indirectly) implies the end of laws.

  5. Kirby Olson says:

    I haven’t seen the film, but did wonder as I walked around in the Lower East Side a few nights ago how it is that all the hipsters there could make a living that was good enough to pay the rent. If Shelley was the original hipster, and Frankenstein is the origin of corporate capital, or at least the unintended offshoot of its engineering, then there is a connection between the two at least in Mary Shelley’s mind.

    What it is still isn’t clear to me.

    I think there is a stronger link between corporate creation and the creation of hipster-boho artists than is currently realized. This could damn both. But I think it’s more fun to turn this around and to think that corporate creativity is something to be cherished as much as poetry. It sustains the nation.

    Henry Ford is better than Rimbaud insofar as his vehicles take us further (to get a shake) and employ more people in their realization, and provide the bigwig higherups with the moolah to publish paintings and books of poetry which would otherwise never have been created.

  6. […] excellent and extremely disturbing, but not in any of the ways one might expect. Check out Shaviro’s blog for a discussion of the film and links to other […]

  7. Stan Papoulias says:

    I am new to this blog but having seeing Splice I am thankful for your very rich analysis which gives me even more reasons for liking the film. You give a very elegant and precise account of a fascinating film, but also use the film to interrogate the investment in a certain Deleuze and Guattari reading. This is what makes both Splice and the blog entry really interesting. So, if I may, I would like to add my two cents to some of the observations and maybe push for a more psychoanalytic reading of certain elements in the film.

    I see the film as an allegory of sorts about transmission, genetic or otherwise, about the compulsion to repeat and the excess of vitality that this very compulsion generates. Dren is female insofar as Elsa wants to reinvent herself as a little girl, because the scrambling of genes and the breaching of frontiers etc., is here also about a fantasy of overcoming, overwriting a certain history that nevertheless returns, excessively. Of course Elsa cannot control Dren but while the distinction between a controlled genotype and an unpredictable becoming in the phenotype is important, we could read some of the exotic mutations that Dren undergoes as not at all random but constrained through the vicissitudes of that history. Here is a helpless chicken-thing which, through maternal gestures of care, develops into a littlegirl-thing, which develops a sting in the tail (for self-defense), whose tumours of mutant potentiality (vitality?) turn into gills (while she is effectively being drowned), out of whose back and arms unfurl magnificent wings (while she is being chased up a roof). This not-quite-girl, not ‘entirely human’ creature appears as a splendid chimaera of potentiality, but this potentiality is almost entirely scripted as the fantasmatic staging of a very particular history. It is not only that her otherness is misunderstood, punished etc. It is also I think that this otherness in itself is the materialisation of Elsa’s own childhood history as a hybrid enfleshed memory, which cannot be let go.

    Elsa is compelled to inject her own story of loss and rage onto the GingerFred creature, by injecting that creature DNA with some of her own. I think there is a case to be made about the connection between GingerFred and Dren especially since the film strongly implies that the two species share significant genetic material, with Dren essentially being GingerFred DNA+Elsa DNA (this is why the sought after protein is found in higher concentration in Dren’s DNA). The ensuing randomness is immediately colonized by the same fantasies that compelled the first injection (it is Elsa who proclaims the ‘it’ to be a ‘she’ I believe). In this sense, it is difficult to determine to what extent we are at all seeing ‘what a body can do’ as distinct from how a body remembers. By ‘remembers’ here, I am not referring to some literal memory of an event, but rather, to the production of Dren’s embodiment as an effect of Nachträglichkeit. I read Nachträglichkeit somewhat differently from you: I am thinking about the Laplanchian reading of Freud, in which an ‘event’ is reinterpreted in light of later circumstances, as a result of which process it still remains as a painful irritant, a shrapnel of the past in the present. Here, temporality works both ways: not simply from present to past (revising of the past to suit new circumstances) but also from past to present (insistence of the past which can never be done with because it was never a present, was never experienced in itself).

    On the whole, I see the lines the film blurs as being about repetition/invention as much as about natural/artificial. If Elsa’s maternal behaviour is ‘artificial’ as much as the creature itself, this articificiality is about a foundational infection of the ‘natural’ gestures with a certain traumatic history – care is always infected by subjectivity (= the living embodiment of such a history). To put it in Laplanchian terms, Elsa infects the creature she caresses with her own unconscious fantasies which have emerged through her history (starting with the first ‘caress’; the injection of her DNA into that of GingerFred). Thus, while Dren does not speak (until the end) she is effectively in, or even of language. For Laplanche, the maternal caress (which is always excessive) is a seduction into language via the unconscious fantasy of the (m)other, a seduction that happens through the body, way before the infant can speak. Language here appears as this mute and incomprehensible force which exceeds meaning and word making etc. It is not so much that Dren’s speechlessness marks her subordination; rather I think that it marks the alien and uncanny force of language as such, felt as a physical invasion both before it settles into meaning and after that point as well.

    The more Elsa tries to ‘correct’ her own history through her girling of Dren, the messier the situation gets. She gives Dren dolls (ostensibly to correct the prohibition visited upon Elsa herself by her mother) but she takes away her beloved cat, thus repeating the mother’s prohibition more effectively – because to a degree, it is the cat, and not the doll, that Dren ‘really’ wants. I say to a degree, because the film explicitly uses the cat as a substitute, a stop-gap object which temporarily stems the cravings initiated by Elsa’s ministrations. After all, Elsa angrily removes the cat when she realises that Dren is infatuated with Clive and announces ‘ we can’t always have what we want’. However, it is not really Clive that Dren wants either. What she/he really wants is demonstrated after the spiking of the cat and of Clive alike at the end. Prostrate and terrified in the woods, Elsa cries at the chimaera/nightmare riding her: ‘what do you want?’ Dren as female/male is Elsa’s own history (the history Elsa can neither own nor overcome) made flesh. In this sense Dren embodies both the urge to be done with all this, and the impossibility of doing so: in a Laplanchian sense again, he/she is the compulsion to be done with the past, to adequate the primal infection of language into meaning, to be done with the unconscious, to live in a present unalloyed by history, to begin again. Dren is Elsa’s wish to correct her own history, bodied forth with hallucinatory (psychotic?) intensity. In the last act of the film, after an apparent burying of girlDren, this wish to correct bursts forth in its ‘true’ colours: as a psychotic delusion of self-creation, literalised in an attack/rape of the mother, which enacts in the Real the wish to reverse the injection of the caress of DNA, of fantasy, the wish for autonomy and agency. ‘Inside…you’ croaks the enraged maleDren shortly before Elsa returns the favour by smashing his skull. Of course, as the end of the film demonstrates, this is not the end but rather the rerouting of the infection of history in Elsa’s pregnancy.

    Now, of course I am sure that some people reading this will see the tediousness of a quasi psychoanalytic reading which always repeats the same mommy stories. Quite apart from the fact that the film explicitly stresses certain Oedipal and pre-Oedipal themes in this story, I am not as much concerned with bad mothers and dysfunctional families here, as I am with the familial as a placeholder for the weight of a certain history and the effects of its transmission. So I would propose this (admittedly very sketchy) reading as a supplement to yours. I am interested in how we are coming to think of temporality, and on how current academic investments in Deleuze and Guattari (or, more correctly, in certain readings of D&G), as well as the emergence of ‘affect theory’ are hastily drawn together in a refusal of the theorisation of temporality offered by psychoanalysis. What is at stake in the potency of what you have so beautifully called “the dream of liberating metamorphosis”? Your analysis of Splice ends by claiming that such a dream may be “an enabler of corporate power”. I would suggest that such a dream or chimaera may also be a manic denial of historicity, in the sense of a traumatic perdurance of the past in the present that continues to clamour, and that demands to be reckoned with.

    Indeed, I am quite intrigued by the levels of irritation and even contempt with which many D&G readers refer to psychoanalysis. I have been in many conferences and workshops with self-proclaimed Deleuzians pronouncing ‘we are done with it’ (it = Descartes, Hegel, Freud, Lacan the mind-body split etc)). I always want to respond: ‘Ah, but is it done with you?’

  8. Kelly Sweet says:

    I was wondering if anyone knew who played the male Dren in the end. You can tell it’s not the same actress (it’s definitely an actor, male). I’ve looked all over the internet and can find nothing on it. Does anyone here know, or remember from the credits?

  9. parodycenter says:

    It’s also gotten fairly mixed reviews, at best.

    The Meta Critic site you linked to gives it ”generally favorable reviews” though

  10. […] Shaviro’s consideration of […]

  11. Dave says:

    Steve, I think this is your best piece yet. I found Splice one of the most uniquely disturbing films I’ve ever seen. It unsettled me to the core, and I’m still not completely certain why. But your extraordinarily insightful analysis clarified a lot. Esp the sense of this parental love which is ultimately so selfish and pathological, but portrayed in a way that is simultaneously transparent and unrecognisable. The film ties the monstronsity of the symbolic without borders with the nature of late capital beautifully. It’s Shelley meets Poe meets neoliberal biopolitics (Poe seems to be the missing link here…).

    I wondered also what you made of the key scene where Clive almost drowns Dren but lies and says he did it to save her? Also, the chilling scene where Dren looks back at Clive through the security camera in the water? Becoming almost purely an digital image, a fantasmatic projection – a gaze that looks back. The unsettling lack of explanation for how she learns words seems to lie in the characters use of her for their own projections. They are each inside of her, just as much as she/he wants to be inside of them.

  12. Dave says:

    Also that curious sex scene between Clive and Elsa where she seems almost in pain?

  13. andrew says:

    Picked this up after seeing it in your top ten. was enthralled, but actually felt
    the film’s obvious electra overtones and adherence to freudian pyschosexual
    development was so intense as to ne a parody, the abuse dren recieves also
    doean’t carry over very well, but enkoyed this alot and found your reading to have so much
    more depth. the writer director has come aways since his origins.
    one other difference did not find dren sex scene schocking if amything the build made
    it almost inevitable. but again thanks, you have given me pause for thought.

  14. Gertrude says:

    Dren speaks two more words in the movie. When Elsa removes Dren’s necklace she turns to Elsa and hoarsely whispers “hurt”. As Dren turns, we see a large purple bruise on the back of her head – the cause of her initial pain. After Dren’s mutilation she is quivering from the cold, from fear and from the pain of being clubbed on the head and then operated upon without anesthesia. As Clive enters the barn, Dren turns to him and hoarsely whispers “help”. Also , Dren used an anagram to express her boredom to her “parents’ . The word tedious when re-arranged spells outside. The sweet little one was fiercely intelligent but the two dorks didn’t even notice.

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