Vincenzo Natali is a science fiction film-maker hailing from Canada. With his typical angle being on psychological horror, it’s very easy to compare him to his compatriot, David Cronenberg. In an era where special effects seem to drive the vast majority of science fiction movies, Natali manages to avoid the obvious, yet make profound statements through the portrayal of strong and troubled characters, rather than through glitzy space battles or battling robots. Natali was born in Michigan to Italian and English parents, but the family moved to Toronto during his infancy. Following a study of film at Ryerson University, he went on to become a storyboard artist at Nelvana Studios in Toronto. He hit the jackpot with his directorial debut at the helm of ‘Cube’ and has never looked back. ‘Cube’ was an outstanding success and proved to be highly popular, particularly in Japan and in France. Natali is a director that is yet to become a household name. Few people I know are familiar with him, and yet he is developing movies featuring award-winning cast members and featuring stories penned by some of the greatest science fiction authors.
As usual, this article will inevitably contain some mild spoilers, but I’ve tried to stick to the movie frameworks, rather than major plot events, so be warned!
His first major movie was released in 1997, that being ‘Cube’. It’s a movie that has connections to ‘Saw’, another movie of that era, in that a collection of characters are forced to deal with surreal forms of retribution in atonement for prior transgressions. The film starts with minimal explanation, as a collection of characters awake to find themselves in what appears to be a sealed, windowless, cube-shaped room. On finding that each face of the room contains a door, it turns out that each of these doors lead to further rooms. However, some of these cubes are laden with deadly hazards. Surrounded by a seemingly endless array of cubes, the characters have to work as a team in order to escape the complex in which they are trapped.
Watching the film, I was reminded of the solo role-playing book, ‘Deathtrap Dungeon’ by Ian Livingstone, in which a character has to proceed through a trap-filled dungeon, against all odds, to reach a seemingly, unattainable prize. The characters in ‘Cube’ inevitably discover that the main danger may not be the hazards they encounter as they move from cube to cube, but instead, the inherent, dangerous personality traits of their new colleagues. While the movie certainly has some gruesome moments, it doesn’t pander to the all-out gore fests that became synonymous with the so-called ‘torture porn’ genre. I was also quite a fan of the cheeky ‘in-your-face’ ending. One word of warning. I wish I’d been given this advice prior to watching ‘Highlander II: The Quickening’ and ‘Matrix: Reloaded’. Don’t even bother with the sequels. They had nothing to do with Natali, and they are ‘straight-to bargain-bin’ bilge…
Natali’s next major sci-fi movie came out several years later. I say major, but in all honesty, I cannot remember the cinematic release. Starring the excellent pairing of Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu, the film throws us into a highly corporate dystopia. Lucy Liu? Dystopia? Natali? Sold! Perhaps the b-movie feel of ‘Cube’ still had Natali playing with a restricted budget, and it does show in this film. However, that does not detract from what is an excellent rollercoaster story. Rather than go down the horror angle, the film instead is more of a sociological thriller, as is often the way with films of the dystopian genre. Northam’s character, Morgan Sullivan starts the movie as an indifferent company executive. Through a series of chance events, including the entry of Lucy Liu’s sultry (but disappointingly named), Rita Foster, he starts to discover that all is not what it seems. With a scene early in the movie that is very reminiscent of the social programming sequence in Kubrick’s ‘Clockwork Orange’ and a situation in which Sullivan is offered a pill that will change the way he views reality (cue ‘Alice In Wonderland’ and ‘The Matrix’), the film amusingly dances around some great concepts as the plot gathers pace. The tight budget is evident in one of the later scenes that features an attempt to portray a futuristic vehicle taking off using CGI, which is frankly jarringly poor. This does not detract from how much quality the film gives us however, as a good film is about more than how big its special effects budget is. For some reason, the film seemed to pick up a new title, and is more commonly known as ‘Brainstorm’ rather than ‘Cypher’. Quite a strange decision, considering that this new title may cause confusion with Christopher Walken’s classic 1983 sci-fi movie of the same name.
I watched ‘Splice’ last night, making it my first movie of choice, having taken up lovefilm.com’s trial period offer. OK… that was a slight lie. The first movie I watched was actually the snoozefest, ‘Wings Of Desire’, but I’ll omit commenting on that film following its soporific effect. With such a narrow release window when ‘Splice’ first came out, I totally missed it’s appearance at my local multiplex. What becomes apparent straight away is the evidence of a much bigger budget, which bodes well for Natali’s on-going portfolio. The studios are starting to trust him with more production cash, and Natali is producing the goods.
Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley portray a couple that work for a large research company specialising in cloning. Their team has developed a technique involving splicing DNA fragments from multiple species and the movie begins as we witness the birth of one such creation. While their corporate sponsors are piling pressure on their heads to convert the fruits of their research into hard dollars, Polley’s character, Elsa Kast is intent on pushing the boundaries of their cloning experiments. At loggerheads with both their paymasters and with the legal and ethical restrictions on human cloning, the pair are moved to continue the direction of their experiments behind close doors. This inevitably leads to dramatic consequences, when Kast uses the DNA of a human donor to synthesise a creature they name as ‘Dren’. Kast falls into the trap of substitute mother-child bonding with Dren, which reminded me of the great Jan Svankmajer film, ‘Little Otik’. And there are elements of both ‘Frankenstein’ and David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ as the almost-human life-form develops. With greater maturity, Dren’s distance from humanity is accentuated.
The adult Dren is portrayed magnificently by the (French?) actress Delphine Chanéac. Between her come-hither gaze and the strange ‘eyes too far apart’ post-effects, Dren is both desirable and yet slightly revolting. That does sound like an absurd combination, but C.L. Moore created a very similar character in her short story of 1933, ‘Shambleau’.
The relationship between each of the couple and Dren changes as the movie progresses. From the early stages, Kast is keen to develop an emotional connection with Dren. However, as the story progresses, it is Brody’s Clive Nicoli who begins to bond more, even though he is fairly rejective of Dren at first. These developing relationships are the main key to the movie, and are instrumental to what become the climactic events. The film is very much of the David Cronenberg body-horror model, and it shares some common themes with Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ in the general feel of unease, and the notion of impending tragedy. The pay-off scene towards the end of the movie does well to push the boundaries of taste, but apparently did not go down well with the American distributors. So once again, Natali was left with a fairly limited release for his film, despite the evidently greater production budget.
After ‘Splice’, Natali commented that he had plans to work on two further science fiction ventures. These being J.G. Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ and William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’. Both very impressive novels yet to make a celluloid appearance. Natali has also mentioned that he would like to do Alan Moore’s ‘Swamp Thing’. However, this is more of a personal desire on the part of Natali, rather than a project that has any realistic chance of being green lit. Producer Jeremy Thomas has been attempting to get a film based on ‘High Rise’ going since the 1970’s, but progress on the production is very much under wraps. Capri films, the production company went so far as to publish a synopsis in 2009:
“In the midst of a vast ocean stands the Elysium Tower – a glistening vertical city – a sanctuary for challenging times. Powered by sun and earth, designed by the greatest architectural visionary of the new millennium, Elysium is a self contained world. A world of commerce, cuisine and entertainment, featuring restaurants, swimming pools, libraries, cinemas, even a research hospital. It is not just the tallest and most technologically advanced work of modern architecture, but one that embodies the world’s highest aspirations. Dr. Robert Laing, a new arrival, settles in and adjusts to this hermetic life. But before long he becomes aware of something unsettling in the building. In an escalating atmosphere of unrest the residents break into tribal factions. Laing watches in horror as the myth of a utopian society is shattered.”
The film was originally scheduled for release in early 2011, but as of writing, the latest release date places the film further back in 2013. With studio budgets being cut left, right and centre as a result of the economic downturn, it’s understandable why projects deemed to be on the less commercial side of Hollywood produce are not being prioritised. Natali is very much the new David Cronenberg, and as such, may not be seen as being in the same blockbuster-making circles as the Michael Bays and Steven Spierlbergs of the movie world. This of course is a tragedy, as Natali’s output, taste and realisations are far more stimulating and exciting than the endless torrent of monster/robot battles and formulaic super-hero movies that Hollywood seems to think we like.