Monday, May 25, 2009

The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

"Be afraid. Be very afraid." —Veronica Quaife, The Fly.

Often, when a film is considered a "re-imagining" rather than a "remake," it's fairly unimaginative. Sure, you've got some exceptions, like Martin Scorsese's The Departed, which truly re-imagines Infernal Affairs, but more often, you get works that simply leech out any of the imaginative force from the original film (Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, Marcus Nispel's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, and Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, to name a few).

David Cronenberg's 1986 film The Fly, however, is a true re-imagining of its source material in every sense of the word. Aside from the title and the very basic idea — a scientist invents a teleportation device, accidentally teleports himself along with a fly, and ends up becoming part man, part fly — the two movies have little else in common with one another.

Whereas the original 1958 Kurt Neumann film was a good old fashioned pulp tale that would be perfectly at home in an episode of The Twilight Zone or an issue of The Vault of Horror, Cronenberg's "remake" (or rather, ultra-loose adaptation of the original source material: a short story by George Langelaan) takes elements from the romantic drama, the superhero (supervillain?) origin story and yes, the traditional B-monster movie to offer the audience a powerful and heartbreaking tragedy as well as gruesome horror tale.

Cronenberg's The Fly is distinctly his take on the premise that evokes horror in a very different way. (It's also so unmistakingly a Cronenberg film.) There are no winking nods to Neumann's film. There's no infamous fly-with-a-human-head going, "Help meeeeee!" here. In fact, until the very end, the protagonist of Cronenberg's film doesn't resemble a fly, the way the protagonist in the Neumann film did. This is simultaneously (and perhaps paradoxically) a more ghastly and introspective film.

At a press reception cocktail party, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), an intense and socially awkward scientist, invites Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), a reporter from Particle magazine, to his lab to show off his invention that "will change the world, and human life as we know it." Despite some apprehension, she agrees to see his creation: a set of "telepods" that teleports an object from one pod to another. Veronica agrees to document Seth's work.

Seth's device, however, can only teleport inanimate objects, which he learns after he teleports a baboon, causing the poor creature to get transported inside out. Eventually, Seth and Veronica become romantically involved. After their first time being intimate, Seth realizes that the machine is not perfectly reassembling living objects. So, he reprograms the telepod computer to "cope" with living flesh.

Seth succeeds in teleporting a second baboon — apparently the first baboon's brother — unharmed. And of course, he foolhardily decides to teleport himself. Just before the telepod door closes, a fly slips into the pod. After being teleported, Seth emerges from the receiving pod, seemingly normal.

Shortly after his teleportation, Seth notices changes, mostly for the better, and here we enter the realm of the superhero origin story. He's substantially stronger, more energetic and more sexually potent. Sure he's more arrogant, irritable, violent, and likes 40 spoonfuls of sugar in his coffee, but so what? He's invigorated. He believes the teleportation has expunged him of everything bad from his body (fat, waste, toxins). Veronica, however, suspects that something's gone wrong.

And boy, is she right.

Seth checks his computer's records and discovers that the telepod computer, confused by the presence of two separate life-forms in the sending pod, merged him with the fly at the molecular-genetic level. He then realizes that he's becoming a hybrid creature that's neither human nor insect (he refers to himself as "Brundlefly").

Eventually, the changes Seth experiences are not for the better. He appears to be deteriorating, with body parts falling off and coarse hairs and tumor-like growths covering his skin. He exhibits more fly-like traits, like vomiting digestive enzymes onto his food and clinging to walls and ceilings. "Brundlefly" also realizes he's losing his human reason and compassion and is being driven by more primitive impulses.

And of course, if all this isn't shitty enough, Veronica learns that she's pregnant and doesn't know if the child was conceived before or after the teleportation.

A major factor that makes The Fly so effective is the performances from its leading actors, Goldblum and Davis. This is easily one of the best performances of Goldblum's career to date. He brings an intensity and pathos to the role of Seth Brundle/Brundlefly that's both pitiable and terrifying. His trademark quirkiness, albeit funny and believable at times, has a distinctly dark edge. And Davis's portrayal of Veronica is crushing. She clearly loves Seth and wants to help him, but is torn between not wanting to abandon him and not being able to cope with the monster he's become or the potential monster that's inside her body.

Through Goldblum and Davis' performances, as well as through Cronenberg's direction (and his and Charles Edward Pogue's script), you actually care about the film's characters and hope against reason that there's a way out of this awful mess. Because the characters are likable and sympathetic, it makes Brundle's slow deterioration emotionally brutal, as well as disgusting, to witness.

Consider the scene where Seth, slowly losing his humanity literally and metaphorically, collects his lost appendages (ears, fingernails, teeth) in his medicine cabinet and calling it the "Brundle Museum of Natural History." In addition to it being in the same vein as the carnival geek show or gross-out horror film, his mumbling to himself about the fondness for these old vestigial pieces of him is also humorous in the "black-as-death" gallows variety, but also just plain sad as all hell.

The Fly is a film that has its cake and eats it, too, delivering gross-out effects (I was physically jolted by the nightmare Veronica has about her potential birth as well as the scene where Seth "wins" an arm-wrestling match), psychological scares and an intimate character-based tragic drama, evoking Aristotle's prerequisite "pity and fear" within the audience, as well as the gag reflex.

Barfin' on donuts,

James "Gourmand" Comtois

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Blogger macrogers said...

This film is a masterpiece, just an absolutely gorgeous work of art. It's pure cultural snobbery that keeps it from being discussed as one of the best films of the past couple decades. Beautifully constructed visually, emotionally wrenching, very funny, intensely curious about life and the nature of humanity... I mean, what else is a movie supposed to have?

11:04 AM  
Blogger DPS said...

Agreed. This is also one that traumatized me as a youngin. Between the arm-wrestling and the digestive enzymes, (plus the recurring and physically painless loss of appendages) I just couldn't deal. It also acts as an absolutely perfect vehicle for Cronenberg's brand of body-horror.

This was my entry into Cronenberg's universe, and over the years I've really come to respect him as a film-maker. There are very, very few directors whose work can get to me on a visceral level like he does. I always sit down to his movies with a sense of dread because of that.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Having finally seen this, I too am amazed that this movie hasn’t been hailed as the masterpiece that it is, not just of Cronenberg’s work, or of the horror genre,* but of film in general. It truly is a masterfully made film, regardless of the genre.

*It’s not on imdb’s Top 50 Rated Horror Films, IGN’s list of the Top 25 Horror Movies of All-Time, or AFI’s “100 Years…100 Thrills” list.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Zack said...

I watched this again myself earlier this year, and was astonished how well the film as aged like wine. A true classic that stands the test of time like "Alien".

7:52 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Oh, definitely. And again, it's truly stunning that it doesn't get the attention or credit that it deserves.

3:14 PM  

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