Come to mummy: Sarah Polley and offspring in Splice


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



16 June


Lord Byron and house guests read Fantasmagoriana, 1816

While on holiday in Switzerland in 1816, Lord Byron and his house guests grew sick of the weather of the “year without a summer”, as 1816 came to be known. Volcanic activity on the other side of the world and the historically low solar activity were precipitating famine in Europe, flooding in Asia and other weather catastrophes. But for this party it meant excessive rain, gloom and little to do. To entertain each other, they started reading a collection of German and French gothic stories called Fantasmagoriana. Published only three years earlier in French, the book contained stories with titles such as La Morte Fiancée (The Death Bride) and Le Revenant (The Revenant). The readers included Byron, Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, John William Polidori and Claire Clairmont. “We will each write a ghost story,” Mary Godwin remembers Byron commanding. And they did, Polidori writing The Vampyre, the first work of recognisable vampire fiction, while Godwin (with addenda by her future husband Shelley), inspired by the news of the great electric advance of galvanism, came up with Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus, after having “a waking dream” during which she imagined it, on 16 June.




Splice (2009, dir: Vincenzo Natali)

Why does RoboCop clump about like that, when he’s a cyborg who can jump great heights, has finesse when it comes to aiming a weapon and can run like a gazelle? The answer is: to remind us that he is a Frankenstein creation. Thud. No such sonic clues come from Vincenzo Natali, who spends a huge amount of time and effort distracting us from the fact that his story is about another Frankenstein creation – a hybrid human built by a nerd and his nerdy girlfriend. See, a couple, couldn’t be a Frankenstein story, could it? Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play the scientist couple and, from the first shots of a slightly overweight Polley, it’s obvious that Natali has pulled his crew in on a no-budget, last-minute, just-got-the-money-and-the-window arrangement. The weight comes and goes as the film progresses, doubtless because Natali was shooting asequentially. This is not an unfair pop at Polley, not at all. In fact it’s a hallmark of low-budget high-concept films that some or all of the actors look chubby – they’re in “downtime” and are often there to lend a name and do a friend a favour – before they go back on the punishing diets that make them lean lollipop heads. In this case Polley for a fellow Canadian, the director of the cult film Cube perhaps also having another little wonder up his sleeve. He does, with this story of scientists who splice DNA together to produce a hybrid human, incubate it, birth it, then stand back and watch as it – her, actually – develops at a freakish speed. Dren (that’s “nerd” backwards) then throws the “parents” into familiar roles – she is loving and protective, he more wary (surely he’s not asking “Is it mine?”) and in a quick succession of cute vignettes, Natali delivers the sort of “bringing up baby” film that families used to shoot on domestic Super 8, but here is caught on the brightest, most aseptic film stock.
Except this isn’t a “big aah” home movie; it’s a horror film, and what the couple have actually created is something that becomes more terrifying by the day. Dren grows at speed, letting on that she can breathe underwater at one point (there are other revelations, in spoiler territory) and subtly shifting her allegiances – as the scientists’ “little girl” arrives at puberty she falls for dad, starts to see mother as a rival (hello Doctor Freud). To reveal how it all pans out would destroy the fun of watching it, but as Splice moves towards its finale, it never quite ties up all the ideas it has let loose en route. Maybe that’s because the ethics of scientific experimentation on animal or human forms resists easy good/bad categorisation. Fixing a wonky heart is good; growing a second head isn’t. But if you can ignore that, and its generic running-around ending, this is a fabulous looking film, the two leads live up to their billing, as does Delphine Chaneac (yes, it’s a human being playing Dren, amazingly) and there has been a fascinating examination of what it means to be a human. It’s all about love, apparently. Well, it might be.



Why Watch?


  • There’s never a dull film from Vincenzo Natali, director of Cube
  • Tetsuo Nagata’s bright clean cinematography
  • Delphine Chaneac’s amazingly lithe performance
  • The remarkable effects work – CG and physical


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Splice – Watch it now at Amazon





Last Night

Sandra Oh in Last Night


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



24 February



The Battle of Los Angeles, 1942

On this night in 1942, with the US at war with Japan for less than three months, air raid sirens started wailing throughout Los Angeles county. A blackout was ordered. Air raid wardens were summoned. At around 3am the Artillery Brigade began firing machine guns and anti-aircraft shells at reported aircraft. Over the next hour over 1,400 shells would be fired. At 7.21am the blackout was lifted. Several buildings had been damaged; five civilians were dead – three in car accidents, two from heart attacks. No planes were downed, or even hit, as far as anyone could tell. By the next morning at a press conference, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was claiming the whole thing was a false alarm brought about by itchy trigger fingers and nerves stretched taut in expectation of a raid. In some quarters a cover-up was suspected – was there a Japanese base in Mexico? Were there Japanese submarines offshore? Was it a government-generated stunt designed to stiffen the sinews? A UFO? Or, as a report in 1983 seemed to suggest, just weather balloons?




Last Night (1998, dir: Don McKellar)

There are two Last Nights. There’s the stump-draggingly dull 2010 relationship drama starring Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington and Eva Mendes. And there’s this much more interesting apocalyptic drama. It arrived with a flurry of “the end is nigh” dramas just as the old millennium was ready to lay down its weary head and the Y2K bug was about to launch into a hissy fit which would turn all computers to scrap metal and swipe every plane from the sky. Or so we were led to believe. In Last Night we meet a bunch of couples on the last day of the world’s existence – there is no argument, it is definitely all over. Sandra Ho is stuck with a stranger (director Don McKellar) when she’d rather be with her husband; Callum Keith Rennie is nervously meeting the high school teacher (Geneviève Bujold) he had the hots for years before; David Cronenberg is a utilities functionary staying at his desk and keeping the lights (gas, actually) on. We meet other people, and their stories too, which play out mostly in a poignant key. It’s unexpected, because this isn’t a honking Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich version of the end of the world. It’s Don McKellar’s and he’s an actor and this is his feature debut and so he does what actor-turned-directors often do – he lets the actors act. These are touching stories – only the stony-hearted won’t buckle a touch at the sight of the mother holding Christmas for her kids so as to make their last day on earth a treat. Last Night could be accused of not being Bay/Emmerich enough, of being a touch anaemic, of there being too many people chasing too little plot. But it’s an unusual way to imagine the apocalypse, of humanity not going out with a bang but a well behaved whimper. Don McKellar is Canadian. Does that account for it?



Why Watch?


  • The fine cast includes Sarah Polley
  • It asks the big question – what would you do?
  • No choppers, no gung-ho, no wisecracks
  • A lead role for Sandra Oh


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Last Night – at Amazon