(Spoiler Alert: Contains details about the movie plot.)
I recently saw Splice, the latest film inspired by the ethical questions raised by genetic research. In it, a married pair of scientists, played by the always cool Sarah Polley and Oscar winner Adrian Brody, through gene splicing experiments, create a new life form.
As in earlier films, like The Island of Dr. Moreau, the being is an amalgam of creatures. It's got some of Polley's genes, so it looks partly human. But it has legs like a bald kangaroo's, and a tail with a stinger (like a scorpion or stingray). It chirps like a menacing bird -- and it unfurls majestic wings when excited, taking on the look of something above-human: an angel.
The being can look sexy, too. Played by Delphine Chaneac, the creature sometimes resembles a runway model. The following scene captures a bit of the sexy/scary quality of this "new species":
What I like about this clip is that it suggests the mix of fascination/horror public discourse about new science and technology often carries with it. We love this stuff, yet we're afraid it will kill us if we get too close.
In fact, what's new about the film is that it pushes that "love" all the way into Eros. There's even a sex scene between Brody's character and Dren (the name given the creature), where her angel wings flutter in ecstasy.
But, as the stinger at Polley's throat reminds us, Dren is "not of our kind." (That stinger will pierce the heart of one of the characters later, administering a death blow not unlike what killed Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter.)
One of the things that keeps the film from resolving into cliche is that it maintains this ambivalence through to the very end. Of course, Polley and Brody are punished in various ways for their Promethean hubris. Like Adam and Eve, they've accessed knowledge it seems they should have left alone.
But in the last scene, this idea is thrown into doubt. We find out Polley's character is pregnant. The baby could be the progeny of her (now dead) husband or of the creature itself -- who at one point transformed itself into a man and raped her. In a rather futuristic take on the Pro-Choice position, she decides to keep the baby.
And her boss at the genetics firm has gone from condemnation of her creation to approval. It turns out her research produced profitable new patents for the company. Polley's character is lauded for her courage.
Tradition and the Posthuman Individual
As I was wondering about the film's vacillations, I came across some interesting observations by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek on the public rhetoric surrounding genetic research.
Zizek, thinking about the way the news of genetics breakthroughs has been received in Europe, notes a tendency which "on the one hand, tacitly tolerates scientific and technical progress, while on the other...tries to control its effects on our socio-symbolic order, that is, to prevent the existing theological-ethical world picture from changing." (p. 62)
I think Zizek's comments explain the caution around such discoveries when it comes to public policy rhetoric. In the U.S. at least, such "official statements" are influenced by a politics that speaks the language of (if not rules according to) Judeo-Christian ethics. And the film certainly reflects this influence. But what of its simultaneous delight and endorsement with such dabbling?
There's one U.S. institution stronger than Church and State combined: Business. And this force is governed more by cost/value equations than ethics. As such, it tends to be morally agnostic.
The movie can be read as a parable about the difficulty of splicing all these forces together -- into anything resembling an integrated social whole. And though this integration never happens, along the way the film offers up some fascinating and hilarious conundrums. Here's my favorite:
After walking in on Brody and Dren, Polley's character mutters a standard movie expression, along the lines of: "There are some things you just don't do." This draws a big laugh from the audience.
Maybe that's partly because it's hard to define Brody's transgression: has he committed adultery? Incest? Or something new -- human/alien sex -- that we don't have a sin for yet? In which case, you find yourself asking: is it really bad?