Scientist Sarah Polley encounters Dren, the first human-animal hybrid, in director Vincenzo Natali’s Splice.
When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she gave it the subtitle The Modern Prometheus, for the Greek titan who stole fire from the gods. The doctor and his mythical predecessor didn’t suffer quite the same fate — Prometheus was chained to a rock for his trouble, with an eagle eating his liver for all of eternity, while Frankenstein was hounded by his creation until everything he’d loved was destroyed. The moral of the stories was pretty much the same, though: There are some things man just wasn’t meant to know.
Splice, writer-director Vincenzo Natali’s genetic engineering chiller, falls squarely into that same archetype. Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play scientific power-couple Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast (named for the actors who played the doctor and monster in the classic Bride of Frankenstein), leaders in the field of splicing together animal DNA into bizarre new hybrids. As their attempt to stitch human DNA into the genetic tapestry goes increasingly awry, the movie raises questions about exactly where scientific curiosity could be leading us, and whether we should follow. Even with the issues the film raises, though, Natali doesn’t want to be seen as anti-science.
“I just think we’re beyond the Promethean myth,” he explains. “We’re no longer having to question whether this technology should exist or not. We’re not questioning whether we should be stealing fire from the gods — that’s already happened. It’s simply a matter of questioning how to apply that technology in a way that will do maximum good and minimum harm.”
For Natali, the value of tapping into the Prometheus myth is less about questioning the value of progress and more about old-fashioned storytelling — the type that deals with some of humanity’s oldest hopes and fears. Dren, the genetic hybrid that Clive and Elsa create, may seem like a direct descendent of Dr. Moreau’s island of horrors, but her lineage actually stretches as far back as the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. After all, creatures like the sphinx, centaurs and angels can all be seen as spliced-together hybrids.
“Dren, while she’s a product of cutting-edge science, she really is a modern angel, or some kind of animal-human hybrid that inevitably humans fall in love with,” he says. “That’s a conceit that’s been with us for thousands of years. I always thought that she should be a genetically engineered angel, or harpy, or siren — any one of those things would work. And I can’t help but wonder if in some way those notions weren’t implanted in us so that one day we would bring them into the real world, courtesy of new technology.”
That may seem like the dream of a mad scientist, but it might not actually be too far off. When Natali started working on his script for Splice, scientific journals were abuzz about a fascinating and horrifying image of a mouse with what appeared to be a human ear growing on its back. In the decade since then, science fact has been doing its damndest to catch up with science fiction, from building a robot that’s controlled by a rat’s brain in a jar to last month’s creation of a completely synthesized life form. It’s hard to know how to react to those kinds of developments — one could just as easily be amazed as aghast or terrified. Natali doesn’t see the need to choose.
“I think it’s all of the above — I think it’s very exciting,” he says with a laugh. “When you do something like Splice, and you discover as I did that the real science was much closer to my proposed, fictional science than I had thought, there’s almost an obligation to make the science in the movie as real as possible. That was really my approach.”
With technology threatening to outpace his own imagination, you might think that Natali would worry about his story becoming outdated. According to the director, though, the advances can only help. Like Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau, the closer science gets to realizing our dreams — or nightmares — the more affecting the stories become.
“Oh, I think they affect us all the more for that very reason,” he says. “The population at large is very cognizant of the fact that we are on the cusp of some seismic change — that on many levels, not just technologically, but socially, culturally, politically, the world is in flux, and there’s tremendous anxiety associated with that. I think that science fiction is the modern mythology — it’s an indirect way of dealing with those concerns, those issues, those ideas. So it’s more relevant now than ever before.”