16 August 2010
You 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.
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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22 July 2010
Notes on some of the MIFF films getting a general release
I used to recommend that people don’t go to films in the festival that already have an Australian distributor attached to them (and are therefore likely to get released) because that was a waste of a ticket but I don’t abide by that anymore. For a start, seeing a film at the festival is so much more enjoyable than going to a regular session at the local cinema. There’s more a sense of occasion plus festival audiences seem to be less inclined to talk, play with their phones and eat three course meals throughout the film. Also, because not all the films always end up getting cinematic releases – especially the ones that have no confirmed release date yet. As Cerise Howard notes on her list of films with Australian distributors, many of them may be destined to go straight to DVD.
Two of the films in the festival that I’ve seen that are getting released soon are The Special Relationship and Despicable Me. The Special Relationship is a dramatisation of the dynamic between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton while Despicable Me is a 3D computer animation about a super villain, sort of in the vein of The Incredibles. Both are films worth seeing but not ones I’d personally give priority to at the festival.
Of more interest is Debra Granik’s new film Winter’s Bone about a teenage girl trying to track down her methamphetamine-making father in the ultra poor Missouri mountains community that she has the misfortunate of living in. I’m still not sure how I feel about this film because I found it such a depressing experience, although it also functions as a strong and tense mystery. There is a lot to admire about Winter’s Bone but I’m not so sure if I enjoyed it – although I guess that is sort of the point.
The other mystery of sorts that I’ve seen is Roman Polanski’s new film, the very atmospheric The Ghost Writer. While not in the same league as classics such as Repulsion and Chinatown, The Ghost Writer is one of Polanski’s better straightforward genre films.
I remember seeing New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s acclaimed short film Two Cars, One Night at a MIFF opening night years ago and absolutely loved it (it was certainly far superior to Somersault, which was meant to be the main attraction). While I wasn’t a big fan of Waititi’s first feature film Eagle vs Shark, his new film Boy is absolutely wonderful. It is so genuine and funny that it is little wonder it has taken the New Zealand box office by storm. Highly recommended.
The two MIFF films that I have seen that I am most excited about are the Cronenbergian Splice and Michael Winterbottom’s new film The Killer Inside Me, a neo noir with shades of Kiss Me Deadly and No County For Old Men. I suspect many others will not share my enthusiasm for both films to the same extent and these are certainly not films for everybody. While the visceral horror of Splice is more transgressively fun than anything seriously confronting, the violence in The Killer Inside Me is some of the most shocking violence I’ve seen in cinema for a very long time. However, I loved them both and will probably include them on my top ten films of 2010 list at the end of the year.
© Thomas Caldwell, 2010