by John Lobell
[Spoiler alert] First, some personal background. I have for the past few years been consulting on a project called Timeship, a $300 million project devoted to extreme life extension. Put simply, the developers of the project object to death and intend to “cure” it, finding the genetic cause of aging and turning it off. (You can find out more at Timeship.org, and get the book on the project, Timeship: The Architecture of Immortality, on Amazon.) So what was fantasy for Mary Shelley is now becoming reality. Craig Venter has announced the creation of a new life form as he gains the ability to code DNA as facilely as computer programmers code C++. But as in all great science fiction, the core of Splice is not science, but metaphor.
Splice is one of the best science fiction movies of its kind, up there with AI in its investigation of the human meanings of creation-of-life technologies. It achieves its stature, as does much great science fiction, by being not just about the science, but also about the human impact of the science. And it goes further in making that impact be not on stereotypes, but on real, fleshed-out people.
Two geneticists, a couple, working for a biotech firm mix the DNA of various animals with the woman’s DNA to create a creature which they tell each other they will “terminate,” but to which (or whom) they become attached. The creature, eventually named Dren, conveniently has a gene for rapid aging, so that she can come to adulthood within weeks.
The movie presents genetic research and the creation of artificial organisms with visceral reality, but the genius of the film is the play between the activities of the geneticists as scientists and as parents. Should they create this creature? Should she get pregnant? Should they terminate their experiment? Should she have an abortion? How will the creature disrupt their personal and professional lives? What do they do when it won’t eat? When it gets a fever?
The movie brilliantly plays the parental instincts of the geneticists, their personal limitations and neuroses, and their scientific ambitions against each other. It may seem trite to conflate a scientist’s desire to create new life with a woman’s desire to have a baby, but the movie does so brilliantly, and in so doing is as powerful a portrayal of Promethean scientific motivation as we have ever seen in a movie.
The model for Splice is, of course, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus. Frankenstein explores two themes, the first the presumption of Dr. Frankenstein in upstaging nature and creating life, and the second his crime of abandoning his creature and not providing it companionship. And these are exactly the themes explored in Splice, with its weak indecisive male parent and headstrong female parent.
Both use Dren to play out their dramas. And Dren presents a perfect foil for both of them as she convincingly grows from an oversized embryo looking like a huge plucked chick, to a rabbit-like baby, to an enticing little girl, to a magnificent angelic (including the wings) creature of irresistible sexuality.
Dren dies twice, giving the movie two endings, the first ending the experiment and providing lessons in life, growing up, and parenthood, as well as lesson in the meanings of our new biotechnology and what it means to be human. The second ending takes us into the realm of Resident Evil and Species in order to give the studio a chance at box-office success and an opportunity for sequels.