Are Audiences Ready for ‘Splice’?
The movie business is known for happy accidents. Filmmakers can blow chunks of their budget on, say, making a life-size mechanical replica of a great white shark, only to discover that whenever they want to show more if it on screen they end up having to show less simply because the massive thing isn’t working. However, once all those welcome moments of improv during production are sealed and in the can, there are no more accidents. Marketing a (studio) movie is a heavily calculated, meticulously timed event backed up by hundreds of hours of test screenings, branding tests and focus group pokings and prodings. So by the time the public sees that first trailer for the film, unless the filmmaker in question is J.J. Abrams, they are not seeing what the director wants them to see; they’re seeing what the marketing department determined was the best possible sell of the film based on a legion of statistics culled from all of the human guinea pigs at the mall who said, “Sure, I’d love to be a part of your survey about an unreleased movie!”
I bring all of this up because, though the marketing process is scientifically refined, the yield isn’t always all that accurate. And when this happens, it’s almost always intentionally so. Take Splice, the latest film from Cube director Vincenzo Natali, for example. This is the case of a major studio, Warner Brothers via their genre-label Dark Castle, buying the distribution rights to a highly buzzed Sundance film and then having absolutely no idea how to sell it to mainstream America. So they conducted their battery of tests and the magical marketing plan the system spat back out dictated that the best way to sell Splice was as a straight-up horror movie with a sci-fi twist. It looks like any number of other Species rip offs about people in lab coats who try to hide a creature from the world only to be in over their secretive heads once it gets out. That’s not to say the film looks bad, it just looks incredibly familiar.
And that’s a huge problem considering Splice is only vaguely that kind of film. Sure, its plot about two scientists (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) who create a new creature fused with human DNA is another permutation on the Frankenstein formula, but that’s just the framework. Beyond that, however, Splice alternates between a weird-you-out horror movie, a hard boiled science fiction film, and a dark, dark comedy. In a lot of ways it’s as though Natali set out to make the anti-creature feature; a beast that is both a parody of the worst the niche has to offer and a love letter to its finer points.
I’d love to be there for each and every screening of the film to see the looks on people’s faces once they realize that the tone of Splice is not at all what they were expecting, but the downside of how much fun that would be is that this reversal of expectations is exactly what’s going to kill it at the box office. I had people walking out of the screening I was in wondering quite loudly how a Syfy channel film ended up getting released in theaters. And that would be all well and good if Splice was anything like a Saturday-night cable premiere, but anyone who compares the brilliant fusing of genres that is Splice with the network everyone loves to hate clearly doesn’t actually watch movies like Mega Piranha. The two couldn’t be farther removed.
People won’t care, though, because they’re going in expecting a monster-kills-everyone horror movie and what they’re actually going to get is an intelligent, thought-provoking creature feature that could have slipped out of a time warp from 30 years ago were it not for the fact that Splice delights in being a bit more brash in what it shows than even the great creature features of the ’80s were all about. I really hope people give it a shot, though. I hope that once it breaks from the mold they’ve assumed it has been cast from that they still stick with it and don’t start laughing like immature jackasses (as several people at my screening did) because they don’t know how to deal with a filmmaker who is out to make them feel uncomfortable without using jump scares or teen scream queens. I hope a smart, original sci-fi-infused film like Splice can survive the Hollywood machine (and to Warner Brothers’ extreme credit, they didn’t actually trim the film from an R to a PG-13 after buying it), but sadly I don’t think it will.
That’s a pity, because those of us who want more sci-fi films that risk everything on originality and less films based on toy lines from the 1980s are probably going to suffer down the road because of it. But, hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe mainstream theater goers won’t be bitter about being misled by the trailers for Splice. I wouldn’t count on it, though.