The Fly

(USA - 1986)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz
Genre: Sci-Fi/Horror
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: David Cronenberg & Charles Edward Pogue based on the story by George Langelaan
Cinematography: Mark Irwin
Composer: Howard Shore
Runtime: 95 minutes

The Fly is a decidedly Cronenbergian reconceptualization that greatly exceeds the 1958 original. It is an unpredictable sci-fi/horror of uncommon intelligence and believability. As is the case with pretty much all Cronenberg movies, the subject matter is unique, but the themes and messages are honestly handled and apply to real life.

Cronenberg's version wisely sticks to having a really small cast (10 people are credited and he's one of them), but there aren't too many other similarities beyond the most obvious. There are essentially only three characters, and even the third doesn't get that much screen time. This allows for full development of the main characters and everything Cronenberg has to say.

At the center of The Fly is Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a brilliant yet weird reclusive and lonely scientist. He meets Veronica "Ronnie" Quaife (Geena Davis) at a party for researchers. Ronnie is a struggling journalist looking for her big break. Seth is interested in a relationship because that aspect has totally been missing from his life and is able to convince her to go to the warehouse where he lives to see his invention that's going to change the world. She's there to write a story about him, but after some trouble he's able to convince her to wait until his teleportation project is complete.

Seth and Ronnie fall in love, but this is not a movie where there's a romance for the sake of having one. Their love is the core for most of the themes the film is presenting. Consider the crucial scene in the movie where Brundle decides to teleport himself. By his own admission, Brundle has spent the last six years of his life trying to teleport something living. "I don't have a life so there's nothing for you to interfere with" he said to Ronnie when she agreed to document his quest. Brundle has just teleported an ape, so his goal has essentially been accomplished. The only things left to do are make sure the ape is really okay and then transport a human. He should be ecstatic, but he's not due to Ronnie leaving suddenly when she saw something (a pre-release of their magazine with Seth as the cover story) her former pig boyfriend Stathis Borans (John Getz), who is also her editor, left there for her. Instead of jumping for joy, he's drinking because he's jealous. The relationship is suddenly more important to him because he's never really had one before, but for that reason he gets carried away about a small thing he doesn't understand. In an irrational move, he essentially decides to punish Ronnie by transporting himself when he's not around. If someone had been around, they may have noticed that a fly was in his pod as well. Instead of teleporting Brundle, the computer fuses him with the fly.

The other scene to look at is the scene where BrundleFly finally releases his aggression. Sure, in an excellent scene of gore Brundle cracked a wrist during an arm wrestling contest, but I think that was a case of not knowing or at worst testing his own strength. In any case, the reason he releases is not that the fly has totally taken over, but that he's jealous Ronnie is with Stathis. He could simply kill Stathis if he wanted, but instead he wants to make him suffer, deform him before he does so. In the most amazing scene of the movie, he melts away Stathis' hand and foot with his fly vomit and would gladly have kept going to eliminate his "competitor."

In many ways, BrundleFly might just as well be an AIDS victim. He's faced with the prospect of dealing with a disease there's no known control or cure for. His life can never be the same. There are things he can't do and people are afraid of him, but what makes it worse is the unknown. He doesn't know what the next hour will bring. He doesn't know if his ear will fall off or he'll hurt someone directly or indirectly, willingly or unwillingly. He just knows that his dreams are not going to come true. Ronnie still cares for him, but they can't have a relationship that resembles what they had. It's painful for her to just be around him as he slowly becomes something more and more inhuman and repulsive. She wants to have his baby, but she doesn't know if it was created before or after he became BrundleFly. If it was created after, does that mean the baby could also be infected? She dreams it'll be something of a giant carrot shaped slug

What makes The Fly so good is Brundle's gradual, generally subtle with startling gross moments, transformation into a fly. At first, he feels great and loves his new power. He has speed, quickness, strength, and stamina like he never had before. He wants to see the good in his work, so he does. In fact, he thinks the process has purified him, but he's looking past the facts that he's talking a mile a minute, constantly moving and eating sugary foods, totally lacking in patience, and generally over hyper and aggressive. Ronnie can see these negative effects, but she's powerless to do anything about them. All she can really do is accept him and try to support and comfort him or get out of his life.

As is usually the case with Cronenberg, there's a big technological aspect to the story. The Fly shows how computers are inferior to men and some of the problems their use can cause. The computer only knows what man tells it, and any flaw in that man will be reproduced by the computer. The computer can't have a mind of it's own in any practical sense. It can't rationalize when it's faced with a situation it isn't programmed to know the proper way to handle. It does something because someone told it to and humans are stuck with the results. The computer isn't alive so it can't feel or care; it's not affected by its mistakes, poor Brundle is. I'm not ready to go back to the Stone Age, but it's true that even when technology is used with good intentions it can destroy humans, especially in cases like this where it's ultimately not used carefully.

Yet another aspect of The Fly is how people are altered by their ambitions and goals. Brundle's goal is lofty, he wants to change the world, but that magnitude isn't significant. What's significant is the way he goes about it. His life isn't complete because it's all about achieving this one goal. There's no room, no time for anything beyond his work, which obviously is satisfying but only to a certain extent. Instead of changing the world, he only succeeds in changing his world, which is usually the way it works.

Jeff Goldblum can be lame, laid back, and annoying, but with surprising intensity he turns in the role of his career here. There are so many things to like about his performance. Simply being able to make his character credibly change as he mutates is tough enough since physically he changes as much as probably any character ever filmed. What I think he doesn't get enough credit for though is the way he brings home the folly of his life. He not only made me care about him, but also made me laugh at the same time he made me sad. The script is really good at giving him the opportunity to mix the three conflicting versions of Seth: Brundle the scientist, Brundle the human being, and Brundle the fly. What's most impressive though is the way he's able to convey himself physically through everything that's applied to his body. Even when he no longer bares any resemblance to Brundle he's still able to bring some human elements out at the same time he's being the dangerous mutation Brundle has become.

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Unfortunately, Geena Davis is still Geena Davis. She is better than usual, but she's still ultimately unconvincing. She has a lot to work with, but she's just not real. The scene early on where she tells off Stathis leaves more to be desired than most of the rest. If Cronenberg had an actress the caliber of Holly Hunter 10 years earlier, this would have been a **** movie.

The Fly is superior from every technical aspect. The makeup (a rare deserving Oscar winner) and special effects stand above the rest. In fact, they stand above almost anything ever done in their field. Ultimately, The Fly is one of the best movies about decay because it says a lot about it and each stage of Brundle's transformation is so incredibly believable looking. The fun thing is that, while after a certain point he looks different in every scene, there are so many shocks and surprises that happen during these scenes. It can be incredibly gross, but what other way could it be handled? The only thing that could have been done was to pull punches, and ultimately that only serves to water down all the points. The true transformation scene starting with Brundle's jaw breaking off and resulting in him no longer being human is one of the all-time greats.

The minimalist settings are perfect. Obviously they are bleak, setting the dark somber tone, but also they point out the emptiness in Brundle's life. You can see why Cronenberg works with Carol Spier all the time. Another Cronenberg regular is composer Howard Shore, who provides another creepily effective soundtrack that, like the rest of the film, is more notable for the way it moves the audience.

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