Wednesday, August 04, 2010


I was pleasantly surprised by this small-budget but intellectually ambitious bioshock film. Directed by Vincenzo Natali (Cube), who also co-wrote the script with Antoinette Terry Bryant, it's a variation on the Frankenstein mythos that combines an exploration of a skewed form of parenthood with human reactions to the uncanny valley. The plot, in brief: Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) and Clive Nicoli (Adrian Brody) are romantically entangled partners who run a bioscience lab owned by a large pharmaceutical company. After creating fairly simple multicellular artificial organisms, they want to step up their research into genetic recombination by using human genes, but the parent company wants them to isolate the genes for a potent protein produced by their organisms. Faced with loss of independence, they go ahead with the experiment anyway, and create a fast-growing neotenous organism that develops from something like a naked kiwi to a female humanoid creature, Dren. As both Elsa and Clive form strong emotional bonds with their strange step-daughter, their company supervisor begins to suspect that they're hiding a secret, and Dren continues to change in unexpected ways . . .

Okay, set out as baldly as that, it doesn't seem any different from a couple of dozen things-we-weren't-meant-to-know horror stories. But the basic scaffolding of the plot exfoliates in all kinds of interesting, unexpected, and genuinely unsettling ways, and its ideas are nicely undercut by a knowing humour: this is a serious film that doesn't take itself too seriously. Both Elsa and Clive both have complicated reactions to their creation, oscillating between hubris, fear, and fatal attraction, exposing emotional weakenesses in themselves and their relationship; Elsa in particular has problems coming to terms with her creation, thanks to a childhood crippled by an uncaring mother. Her developing attachment to Dren is creepily ambiguous, and there's some good satire on the problems of parenthood as Dren races through all the stages of childhood and adolescence to a seriously problematic maturity.

The science behind Dren's creation contains a fair measure of handwavium, but Elsa and Clive are portrayed as scientists driven by ambition and inquisitiveness rather than haphazard craziness, and their lab has a cluttered authenticity. It's nice to see researchers using mini-centrifuges, Eppendorf pipettes, and gel electrophoresis rather than simply peering down microscopes: someone has obviously done a bit of homework. I liked the alarmingly temperamental plumbing of the artificial womb, too. Best of all is the design of Dren. Played at maturity by Delphine Chaneac with an eerie physicality that complements Greg Nicotero's and Howard Bergera's seamless mix of makeup, prostheses and digital manipulation, she's a genuinely weird and beautiful chimera, and some of the best scenes in the film explore her volatile mix of fear, vulnerability, frustration and outbursts of wild exuberance.

So, while the story may be familiar, Natali's angle of attack is refreshingly different, his low-key direction mostly eschews sensationalism yet delivers some nice shocks, and the intelligent script is complemented by some fine acting. And although the last act devolves towards creature-feature frights and alarms, it's just about redeemed by a final scene that has a chillingly spare ambiguity. Like Dren, it's a hybrid whose beauty is more than the sum of its parts.


Blogger PeteY said...

Sounds good. I'll look out for it. GM monsters are the sort of thing I like, and it sounds like it has the sympathetic elements characteristic of Stapledon's Odd John and Sirius. Frankenstein too, of course, but that's very fraught with ambivalence.

August 05, 2010 12:56 am  
Blogger Wm. Luke Everest said...

The "uncanny valley"'s an interesting one. It's all highly theoretical by nature: a kind of social psychology dressing itself up as hard science (and I say that as a sociologist).

Darwin's reaction to certain species of bats and snakes seems to indicate that humans may fear perversion (in the word's true sense). This idea is reinforced by the way early European explorers viewed apes. Literary examples include Heart of Darkness and the Solomon Kane stories. People coming from a religious standpoint often viewed apes, monkeys and some reptiles as horrid blasphemies of humanity. People stopped viewing them this way when we accepted them as their own part of nature.

This raises the real questions.

1) Did we simply require time to become familiar with them? If this is the case, will be require time for robots to become their own part of nature, and will we accept them once they do? Or...

2) Was it thanks to scientific discovery helping us realise that apes were in fact already part of nature? Does the above indicate that we love nature and abhor the unnatural? If that's true then is it possible for robots to become part of nature?

This means what we're really asking with the "uncanny valley" is the same thing we're often questioning as science fiction writers: the power and influence of science generally. How much can technology influence the human mind? Scientific discovery certainly alters our conception of the natural, but discovery is by definition dealing with things that already existed in nature.

Technology can alter what we perceive as socially natural, but can it alter our conceptions of what is biologically natural? What about psychologically? And importantly, are there inherent limits on how far it can push our conceptions when it is in direct conflict with nature? Can it be in said conflict, or is it inherently natural, because it's dealing with that which is naturally possible?

We no longer see apes as human perversions because scientific discovery has rendered them natural, and we no longer fear that they are deliberate perversions. Perhaps that is the fear that causes the "uncanny valley", and perhaps we therefore will always be repulsed by robots, or perhaps we'll be repulsed until we don't fear the idea of technology usurping humanity.

In my opinion, we should be afraid, because too few people value humanity enough. Any world wherein bankers make more money than teachers is probably twisted beyond repair.

August 06, 2010 4:22 pm  
Blogger Wm. Luke Everest said...

Sheesh... sorry for the long post. That wikipedia page got me thinking, and jotting down my thoughts. I was left with a choice between erasing all that work, or hitting "publish" at risk of cluttering your blog. To make up for it, I promise to watch Splice in the near future.

August 06, 2010 4:32 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Splice uses a Barbie doll to make a nice point about the uncanny valley - won't say more as don't want to spoil the fun.

August 07, 2010 10:39 am  

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