Friday, June 4, 2010

The Evolution of Frankenstein -- Reflections on "Splice"

When my son Matt was five, I took him to his first horror movie.

We saw James Whale's 1931 "Frankenstein" at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. It was a special Halloween presentation of a remastered print. Together we stood in the long line of dressed-up geeks, enjoying the Halloween spirit. Once we had all filed in, the movie started and we were treated to -- arguably -- the greatest monster movie ever made.

Afterwards, on the ride home, Matt says, "It wasn't fair."

"What wasn't fair, kiddo?"

"He didn't mean to do it. [Spoiler alert for a 1931 movie] He didn't mean to kill the little girl."

I was stunned silent.

"It wasn't fair that they killed him. That wasn't right."

This is the reason Frankenstein is my favorite monster. He's the product of a fucked-up parent with a God complex. And when he goes out on his own, he obliviously destroys everything in his path. That's the worst kind of horror, as far as I'm concerned. It's chaos out-of-control, and there's little that can be done to stop it because once the ball of chaos gets rolling...

We've seen lots of Frankenstein movies over the years. There's a whole branch of "mad scientist" sci-fi out there that has produced some fun creature features. Usually the science is wonky, though; purely speculative. We go with the flow because, after all, it's just a movie, and we seldom go to the movies to get a lesson in science -- just give us the goddamn monster already!

Vincenzo Natali's Splice gives us both the monster and the science that goes with it, and he has created one of the best sci-fi/horror films in recent years. The film is thought-inducing, challenging, engaging, and quite disturbing. It manages to be all of these things because it never seems far from reality. This is the first sci-fi/horror film I've seen that I could honestly see happening for real.

The plot: Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are partners-in-science-and-in-love. They have successfully managed to splice DNA of different animals to create a brand new species of mammal (a disgusting, phallic-shaped creature). Curiosity drives them to consider the possibilities of splicing same DNA with human material, but the corporation they work for only wants them using the new species to extract rare proteins to create and market pharmaceuticals. So, like all good mad scientists, they perform their experiment of the sly and wind up getting more than they bargained for.

What they get is a hybrid creature who comes to be called "Dren," (that's an anagram for "nerd," for those who give a shit about such things). Dren is a strange creature who grows at an accelerated rate and has exceptional critical thinking skills for a monster. But, like her great-great-great grandfather Frankenstein before her, Dren's need for freedom from her "mother" and "father" cause her to do things she doesn't seem to fully understand.

These things are horrific nonetheless, regardless of her intentions.

This has always been the human way, of course. The Garden of Eden story can be interpreted as being about good intentions gone wrong. And one of our biggest fears in the world of science can be boiled down to essentially the same thing. Scientists want to use their craft to better the human race, but this good intention can be overshadowed by compromised ethics and loose morals. Splice deals with this idea in a very dark way as we watch our scientist couple travel a dark road once they've made up their minds to "make a man." One bad moral decision leads to another as a cycle begins.

I mentioned that this movie doesn't seem far from reality, and this is true. In 2008, it was revealed that scientists were able to combine spider and goat DNA to create a goat who's milk could produce a fiber twice as strong as kevlar. Spider-goats exist! How much longer till we're seeing creatures like "Fred" and "Ginger," the two sloth-like creations Clive and Elsa created in the lab? And is this a good thing?

Splice can be seen as a cautionary tale for today's genetic researchers, yet it is not preachy because it is so firmly grounded in its well-rounded characters. Like with Dr. Frankenstein, we can sympathize because it's impossible to foresee such disaster. Yet, we are also sympathetic towards Dren as well, who doesn't understand herself, let alone these people who say they love her. When she does wrong, it's disturbing because it all seems so naive.

Frankenstein has come a long way over the years. He now seems probable, and Splice -- as a movie -- does an excellent job of showing this to us. I just wonder if such a thing were indeed real, if my son would have the savvy to feel sympathy for the monster.


  1. Aww, Matt is a sweetheart :D

    I am so excited to see Splice! I love me some Sarah Polley.

    Did you ever see that recent movie about vampires in the future who don't want to be bad but they are and there are humans but the humans are dying out? I think Ethan Hawke was in it.

  2. Yeah, it's called "Daybreakers." It's sitting on top of my TV, having just arrived from my good friends at Netflix. I'll definitely be writing something up about it.

    It's amazing to think that my son is just about to turn 13. It only seems like yesterday we were having that conversation. It's one of my favorite memories. I even remember the song playing on the radio: "That's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" by Bob Dylan. Dylan was in L.A. that night and the local classic rock DJ, Jim Ladd, was playing all-Dylan-all-night.