Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Splice: Script Review

The film ick review onslaught begins with a good, long look through the script for Vincenzo Natali's Splice, a recent draft by Natali, Antoinette Terry and Doug Taylor. Just a couple of days ago, we heard the 'rumour' that Adrien Brody had been cast in one of the two lead roles, and some months back I ran a series of images from early creature designs for the film, but other than this, I knew relatively little about the film before reading these pages.

But that was fine. All I really needed to know was that Natali was directing. That's always proven good enough for me.

Spoilers follow, of course. Nothing MAJOR, but... consider yourself warned.

Brody's lead role is that of Clive Spillar, one of a young couple of celebrity genetic science pioneers. The other lead is Elsa Kast and, yes, the Clive and Elsa names are clearly references to the cast of James Whale's Frankenstein films. What's more, Elsa has a Bride of Frankenstein nod written into her genes. Here's something from early on:

Elsa, sports a tangled brunette mane accented by a single streak of white hair. She's a firecracker, brimming with the self confidence that comes from a lifetime of being the smartest girl in the room.

I know, I know - this kind of movie reference can be really quite naff, and many of you may already be rolling your eyes, but hang on a minute. This streak of hair might just seem like an affectation, a geeky tribute and nothing more but by the time the script is done it has actually been a key plot point. And not just once, not just twice, but three times. The wink to Whale might even act a little like subterfuge, sneaking some upcoming plotting past the more cynical audience members who might have spotted it coming were they not able to write it off as a 'reference'.

Our initial introduction to Clive and Elsa is rather surprising. Here's the very opening to the script:

BLACKNESS A MUFFLED HEARTBEAT. Faster than normal, and quickening. A SLIVER OF BLINDING LIGHT cuts through the darkness, revealing the constricting walls of a fleshy liquid-filled chamber. The walls close in, squeezing us towards the light. Our heartbeat becomes LOUDER and FASTER. The walls spasm again, with an oddly mechanical THROB. THRRRUMP - THRRRUMP - THRRRUMP We are experiencing the POV of an infant's birth. The LIGHT expands until we are completely engulfed in WHITENESS. With a WET FLUSHING SOUND, we are abruptly spit from the womb. As our vision adjusts, the WHITE LIGHT DIMINISHES until we can make out colors, and shapes, and...

MAINTAIN POV: The faces of TWO MASKED DOCTORS lean in, serious and intent. OUR HEARTBEAT bangs rapidly. The male doctor, CLIVE SPILLAR, leans forward with pliers and wire cutters.


The female doctor, ELSA KAST, glances at a bank of monitors.


Severing support.

Clive leans in, squeezing hard on his instruments, as though cutting through an especially resilient umbilical cord. OUR HEARTBEAT slows. Subsiding. The room grows dim.

Dropping. Dropping fast!

A HIGH-PITCHED WHINE sounds from the panel. Clive jerks his head to the monitors, annoyed. Elsa's eyes flit above her mask to the vital signs, to us, back to Clive. Clive leans in, slapping with a rubber-gloved hand.

Hey, don't worry. We make it.

As the story begins, Clive and Elsa are working on creating new lifeforms by splicing together genes from various naturally evolved animals. For ethical reasons, they don't use any human DNA but it seems that pretty much anything else is fair game: (other) primates, reptiles, birds - the furry, feathery, scaly works. Their recent babies-cum-creations, Fred and Ginger, were created as part of a program designed to eventually lead to easy synthesis of a desirable, marketable protein. As such, the new lifeforms are created not as an end in themselves, but as a means, and under the sponsorship - and regulations - of a BioResearch company.

And the program is proving very successful, so the eyes of the world are on Clive and Elsa. They even take part in a Vanity Fair photoshoot (which gets a nifty third act call-back) and in one surprising moment, fall prey to a religious activist. But, mainly, these are good times, and they enjoy them. They go so far as to formulate their own custom drugs for designer trips. This is definitely a take on Frankenstein, but it's a post-rave era Frankenstein and, I suppose, it has a little in common with Mary's life with Percy as well as her fiction.

The first act ends with what is probably an inevitable transgression of consensus ethics. Here's the relevant excerpt:

Elsa removes the lid of the Dewar canister. Mist swirls around the opening like a prop in a magic show. Clive watches from the sidelines.

El, cool the jets. You're not thinking straight.

Using a pair of tongs, she removes a plastic cartridge containing the spliced genetic material and snaps it into a servo-guided injection needle at the base of the artificial womb. Elsa powers the machine up. ON A MONITOR: a hazy black and white view of the needle as it is guided with microscopic precision towards the capsule containing a single-cell egg. Clive powers it down again.

(CONT'D) You realize we could go to jail?

Darwin sat on his theory of evolution for nearly 20 years. He nearly lost his place in history because he was scared of what people would think.

Color drains from Clive's face. He swallows hard.

Are we going to lose our place in history, Clive?

Elsa raises her eyebrows. She glances at the glowing red button. Clive follows her gaze to the crimson-lit plastic. His mouth tightens. Clive stares at her for a long moment. Then slowly, his hand reaches out, takes Elsa's and together they press the button. With a soft MECHANICAL WHIRL, the syringe plunges its point into the egg. She puts her arms around him and together they watch entranced as the capsule dissolves in the fluid environment.

At that moment, their next creation is conceived - a creation who will become rather quickly, the third main character. A creation that, in case you hadn't guessed, contains human genetic material as well as the usual range of beasties. At first, this latest hybrid seems to be nothing but a very messy and distressing failure:

Do you think it's in pain?

Why would it be in pain?

Because it's not formed right.

That doesn't mean it's in pain.

Yeah. It probably does. Of course it does.

But there's more to this hybrid than meets the eye and before long, its odd biology starts to make a little more sense. Of particular use to the narrative is the creature's accelerated growth rate - not quite a housefly life cycle, but definitely not a human one either. Yep - that old chestnut. But it works, so don't knock it. Without that conceit, this story would stall.

Splice will be, when you look back at it, a film of two halves. In the first, most of the action takes place in and around the Novapharm labs and is spotted with Novapharm characters; in the second all of the action takes place in a defunct dairy that was owned by Elsa's family.

This dairy is where the three main characters - Clive, Elsa and the hybrid - decamp to keep off of the radar, just the three of them for a full act of the film. It's also where things turn very nasty.

There's a fun detail in the naming of the hybrid. It balances a subtle reference to genetic recombination with a joke about science nerds and, er... candy. This naming scene might sound a little convenient, but it made me smile, and once it was done, I just swallowed the name and dealt with it. I put up with "Wendy Kroy" in The Last Seduction, so I'm sure I can put up with this too.

Much of the film hangs upon the changing relationships between the scientists and their creation. The sides of the triangle shift between marking out clinicism and professionalism to a kinked family to something much less socially acceptable (well, in most human societies anyway). If these shifts weren't believable, the film would fail any credibility test, and only one of the transitions caused me any problems on the page at all. This bump comes quite close to the film's conclusion, as we begin to see the cards dealt out for the climax, and there are a few minor problems around the same sequence. It's hard to discuss them without spoiling the script entirely, but, essentially most are linked to a few lumpy bits of exposition. Ideally, the film would be expanded and a few scenes introduced to better dramatise these ideas, to bring them into the narrative and render them less troublesome, more invisible.

Don't confuse Splice with Species even though they do, in fact, share a small handful of concepts; nor is it Alien, though it enjoys the same abstract biology and Freudian horror; neither is it The Fly, or any other Cronenberg piece despite several echoes throughout. It's a whole new animal, spliced together out of small samples from all of the above, perhaps even borrowing a single sex-changing chromosome from Jurassic Park, but also very reminiscent of daddy, of Vincenzo Natali himself, and his previous work, outlook and preoccupations.

Stephen Jay Gould probably wouldn't have liked it, but this isn't bad science, it's fantasy science - you know, "science fiction". On UK TV only just this week Heroes, Dexter and CSI have all tossed around bad science like it makes sense and expected the audience to swallow it but in Splice, that's not the deal at all. This is sensible science, however stretched, and comfortably embedded in a smart narrative before being exploited for all of its allegorical, social, metaphorical and psychological worth. Splice doesn't pretend to know everything about science while knowing nothing.

Personally, I now look forward to Splice even more than I did before reading the script.
It's not going to be a huge film, but it is going to be beloved.


Anonymous said...

Reviewing scripts of unreleased/not yet produced films is a questionable enterprise to begin with, it being an unfinished product, but posting excerpts of said product is highly unethical. You could very easily be subject to legal action for doing such things.

Brendon said...

Er... no I couldn't.

First of all: fair use. That allows me to review and excerpt, to a reasonable extent, the item I am reviewing.

Secondly: it is a review of the script not the film, and it is a finished script so that's what I'm reviewing.

Marina said...

I skipped it all but I did read your las paragraph and now I'm even MORE excited.

I'm a big Natali supporter and agree completely that his work is severely underrated, especially on his home turf.

Sad really.

Anonymous said...

I've differed with you in the past on other subjects, Brendon, but the whole idea that a script review is somehow "unethical" is really just silly.

But I'm looking forward to "Splice"; I've always been surprised that Natali's work didn't blow up more after "Cube" -- "Cypher" was a slick piece of work (the business conference would have made PDK proud) and "Nothing" was just a stunningly odd existential idea taken to its ultimate extreme. Both stumbled somewhat at the end (as did "Cube") but still work worthy of more attention.

But if "Splice" can avoid being this year's model of "Gattaca," I'll be more than happy...