Sunday, June 20, 2010

Gods and Monsters

Well, the morality we apply to life itself is certainly full of ironies, although maybe that’s a wishy-washy word for what I ought to call sicknesses, or worse. In so many aspects of things, outrage or public concern flares up at one thing, while ignoring much greater dangers or moral transgressions right next door. The most obvious example is the morbid fixation on individual deaths attributable to extreme circumstances (murders, accidents, once-in-a-lifetime ailments, etc.) while effectively ignoring much more prevalent (but mundane) pain and suffering. The treatment of animals at the humane society becomes a front-page outrage, but how many of those protestors went home and had a meat dinner grown from greater torture? We get outraged at any hint of drug taking in sports, as if there was anything pure and natural about the super-charged diet, training and equipment applied to every other aspect of professional sports.

Genetic Tampering

One we haven’t heard too much lately (I’m sure it’ll be back!) is the fear of genetically modified crops, as if those pristine fruit and vegetables shining into the aisles of your local grocery store were ever the natural harvest of low-tech family farms. It’s hard to remember too that before 9/11, George W Bush spent several weeks occupied in high profile musing over stem cell restrictions. The notion, I guess, is that originating life, as a fundamental process, is the province of God, leased to humankind only to the extent that we keep our hands off that central red button. Once life is established, I guess all restrictions are off – if those precious new elements of the global headcount get dumped into starvation or war, well, the covenant doesn’t extend to taking care of people once they can (notionally) take care of themselves. Quite the opposite, given for example how a strident opposition to abortion seems often to be accompanied by a distrust of government as a force for good. And yet, at the same time, we’re collectively obsessed with health care, to the extent that it threatens to crush every other public good, and we also make a scandal out of every occasion where a Canadian is denied some esoteric and expensive treatment. Will we have the fortitude and discipline ever to deny ourselves access to the latest life-extending (maybe not –enhancing) technological advance, if that’s the only way to avoid trampling on a big chunk of our other values and priorities?

Vincenzo Natali’s new film Splice touches on some of these issues, although almost never as fully or as provocatively as you’d like. Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play genetic researchers, Clive and Elsa, also a couple, who’ve developed a form of synthetic life, highly promising as a source of new proteins and commercial applications. They intend to go to the next level, bringing human DNA into the mix, but their corporate masters – needing to start the profits rolling and uninterested in tackling the moral issues associated with these ambitions – shut them down; they press ahead anyway, generating a new hybrid embryo that suddenly yields a functioning new organism, and then something close to a human girl. Of course, as movies galore have illustrated for us, being close to human is usually the same as being freaky as hell.


The movie is set in Toronto – at one point, Elsa refers to wanting a condo in the Distillery district – but it’s mostly confined to interiors until the closing act switches to a farm and its environs; it’s extremely focused on the protagonists, with only a handful of other significant speaking parts. This is no doubt intended to intensify our focus on the central relationship and on the issues implicit in their actions, but instead leaves the film feeling rather sparse and empty. We get the sense of the corporate machinations, but they’re rather absurdly filtered through just one high-ranking woman (as if matters of such prominence wouldn’t involve armies of lawyers and other intermediaries). It makes sense in classic genre terms, allowing a contrast of the intrepid (if not entirely well-oriented) heroes against the impervious embodiment of self-interest, but the mechanics are inherently cartoonish now.

I thought with regret of how Michael Mann might have handled similar core issues, deploying his mastery of logistics and layers to convey a sense of endless inter-connection and institutional complexity. One imagines too that Mann would have given everyone meatier things to say – Clive and Elsa consistently seem to be distilling weeks of potential debate and argument into a few pithy back and forths. Of course, that’s how movies work, but you consistently feel Natali put too much emphasis on speed and accessibility.

That’s especially true as the story advances, and their creation evolves into something they could never have imagined; at a certain point, the elaborations basically get absurd, and you just wait for things to play themselves out. The movie closes on a nice note, allowing the competing interests a temporary sense of reconciliation, and bringing a final twist to the film’s parallel between Elsa’s complicated feelings toward her creation and her unresolved memories of her apparently wretched mother. But overall, this too only confirms Splice as being second-rate – twisted mother-daughter psychology has much more to do with horror movies than with “real” science.

Vincenzo Natali

Well, it doesn’t seem Natali’s ever claimed to be more than a genre director. He made an impact over ten years ago with Cube, which I found about as interesting as you could ever expect of a movie set entirely within a giant cube, but not much more than that. His two feature length films since then, Cypher and Nothing, were under-exposed, and I’ve never run across them (although I guess I haven’t really tried to). Splice might have gone the same way, but ultimately managed to score a wide summer release; it didn’t catch on at the box office though. The Star’s Peter Howell attributes this to a marketing campaign that gave too much away, failing to “hide the monster,” but it seems to me this overlooks the bigger problem, of having squandered such potential on a mere monster movie in the first place.

Brody and Polley don’t seem remotely like brilliant scientists – the movie just isn’t that good at conveying the life of the mind: he gives the same dazed non-performance he’s delivered in every role since winning an Oscar for The Pianist, and the impact of Polley’s role would likely be similar no matter who played it. No matter – it’s a reasonable entertainment. If we want more than that, we can look away from the monster on the screen, toward the one we’re collectively creating at the heart of our world.

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