Film review – Splice (2009)

16 August 2010

SpliceYou know that you’re in for a wild ride when the film begins with a point-of-view shot of a genetically synthesised organism being born in the world. The ‘parents’ of this manufactured life form are Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) and Clive Nicoli (Adrian Brody), a hipster scientist couple widely celebrated for their research in gene splicing. When their work is threatened they covertly cross the forbidden ethical and legal barrier to include human DNA in one of their experiments. The result is the creation of a new creature they name Dren. As she rapidly grows, matures and goes through puberty, Elsa and Clive are confronted with their conflicting ideas of her as an experiment, a surrogate child and a sexually aware being.

Splice is not a David Cronenberg film but it comes closer to capturing the sensibility of Cronenberg’s films from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s than anything Cronenberg himself has done in the past decade. From Shivers to The Fly to eXistenZ, the films of the Canadian auteur have explored ideas of science kick-starting evolution, sexual transgressions and bodily horror with a distinctive flair for visceral gore and pitch-black humour. All of these elements flourish in writer/director Vincenzo Natali’s Splice; a glorious blend of science-fiction, horror, melodrama and psycho-sexual thriller.

Splice: Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley)

Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley)

Previously best known for his 1997 low budget science-fiction thriller Cube, in Splice Natali demonstrates how well he can work with big budgets, known actors and challenging material. Splice is at times genuinely frightening with early scenes evoking the unknown terror of Ridley Scott’s original Alien film. The uncanny strangeness of the infant Dren also strongly recalls the nightmarish ‘baby’ in David Lynch’s Eraserhead. The concept of mechanically reproduced life and the film’s perverse representation of ‘child birth’ are confronting and taboo breaking, and in Splice Natali does everything that he can to make the audience squirm, tremble and laugh in a mixture of disgust, dread and wicked delight.

Underpinning the stylish production values and moments of shock are strong characters and engaging writing. What holds your attention throughout Splice is the changing sympathies you constantly have for Elsa, Clive and Dren as they all constantly shift from positions of being the aggressors to being the victims. Splice is science-fiction/horror at its best, underpinning its daring moments of bodily horror and sexual anxieties with flawed characters to care about and moral issues to wrestle with.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 360, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Predators (2010)

5 July 2010
Predators: Royce (Adrien Brody)

Royce (Adrien Brody)

Before even finding out the identity of Royce (Adrien Brody), a cold-hearted mercenary, we are introduced to him unconscious, plummeting from the sky in freefall. An automatic parachute opens and he lands in a strange jungle along with a bunch of other bewildered strangers who are dangerous criminals, elite soldiers or a combination of the two. The one things they have in common is that they are confused, expert killers and pretty unpleasant people. It takes them a while to figure out what the audience already knows – they are game for the species of super-hunter aliens known as Predators.

The good news for many fans is that this fifth cinematic outing for the Predators is a sequel to John McTiernan’s 1987 film Predator with Stephen Hopkins’s 1990 Predator 2 and the two widely disliked spin-off/Aliens tie-in films unacknowledged. In fact, only the events from McTiernan’s original film are referenced and referred to. By calling the film Predators the filmmakers are evoking the relationship between the original Alien film and its sequel Aliens by implying that Predators is the rightful follow-up film to Predator and promises to up the ante in terms of action and the number of creatures for the human characters to contend with. While Predators 2 is an overlooked guilty pleasure, this new Predators does feel like the proper sequel. The setting is once more a jungle, although this time an alien one, and the idea of what it means to be a hunter and to be the hunted is explored further.

Predators:  Royce (Adrien Brody) and Isabelle (Alice Braga)

Royce (Adrien Brody) and Isabelle (Alice Braga)

There is a nice bit of poetic justice at play in Predators where the human characters realise that they themselves are predatory types and they are able to recognise many of the tricks and strategies used by the Predators. The Predators themselves are revealed to be a more complex race than originally depicted with their own brutal version of racial hierarchy. Nevertheless, all the Predators are warriors and the idea that there could be non-warrior versions of the species is unlikely to ever be explored, which is a shame as somebody could have a lot of fun revealing that the Predators are in fact the pro-hunting gun-nut equivalent of an otherwise peaceful and civilised alien race.

For the most part Predators is B-grade fun in the best possible way. Producer Robert Rodriguez had originally begun developing this film as far back as the early 1990s after the success of El Mariachi but Hungarian filmmaker Nimród Antal (Vacancy, Armoured) has ended up directing. Antal’s Hollywood films are yet to fully live up to the promise he displayed in his début film Kontroll but with Predators he nevertheless does an excellent job filming the various action scenes. Predators is well paced with a good build up and the right degree of character development you need to care about the fate of the human characters. There are also a few genuine surprises and twists.

Predators

Predators does somewhat fall apart towards the end with a drawn out and messy conclusion with a few too many improbable factors letting down what was a reasonably strong film until then. Predators is certainly no Aliens (but then again Predator was never on par with Alien either) but it is still a fun ride. With its diverse group of anti-heroes, believable action and absence of smart-ass self-reflexivity, it delivers the sort of engaging spectacle that characterises the action films of the 1980s.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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