Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Fly (1986)

Don't let it be said I'm against remakes. In my review of Rob Zombie's Halloween, I explained my disappointment with the trend of remaking classic horror movies and how the poor ones typically fail because they are either scene-by-scene re-do's, rendering them pointless, or so divergent from the original idea there really was no point in using the same name. Thankfully, director David Cronenberg's 1986 take on The Fly (produced by Mel Brooks) is an example of how to do a remake right. While utilizing the same  basic concept as the 1958 original, this version introduces some potent subtext, presents engaging and fully realized characters, and pushes the special effects in a manner that enhances the material instead of detracting or distracting from it.

Scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) has invented a device capable of instantaneously teleporting objects across time and space, but he hasn't quite figured out how to transport living things. He meets journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) and recruits her to document his progress, and soon the two are romantically involved. One night, Seth perfects the machine and wants to celebrate with Veronica, but she leaves to confront her editor and ex-lover Stathis Borans (John Getz). Drunk and jealous, Seth sends himself through the telepod and emerges seemingly better than ever. But he didn't notice a housefly in the machine with him, and soon Seth begins changing in horrifying ways.

The Fly could be described as a monster movie. After all, its plot features a brilliant scientist transformed into a hideous creature after an experiment gone wrong, but unlike other monster movies, The Fly works not by having the monster stalk and kill a group of people until a final showdown with the hero. The horror of Cronenberg's movie stems from the increasingly horrifying (and disgusting) changes Seth Brundle undergoes as his mind and body mutate; the horror is watching what this character becomes, not how many victims the rampaging creature can claim.

The pace is deliberate, the narrative unfolding slowly like a tragedy as the protagonist's flaws lead to his downfall. Brundle, a brilliant scientist, is a socially awkward reclusive who in a rash and careless moment  conducts the experiment that eventually turns him into a monster. Even after he's gone through the telepod, he indulges in what appears to be the benefits of the process instead of being concerned by them: sudden strength and agility, aggressive sexual potency (to the point of cheating on Veronica), and a somewhat arrogant, overconfident attitude. Even after he realizes the danger he's in, the scientist in him remains fascinated by his changes and doesn't seek help, driving away Veronica in the process. He tries to treat himself, but his mind increasingly becomes dominated by his insect half and madness.

It's tempting to label the movie's theme as science run amok, but the science takes a backseat to Cronenberg's usual preoccupation: the fragility of flesh.Who needs a ghost or a slasher when your own body turns against you and your mind slips away, and you become something you and your loved ones don't recognize? Brundle's changing condition can stand in for any number of debilitating diseases, syndromes, or disorders: AIDS, cancer, consumption, even old age. Science, in the film, can lead to technology to teleports objects and people, but it cannot, to quote Brundle, "understand flesh," much less cure its failings.

The makeup effects by Chris Walas (who would go on to direct The Fly 2) are outstanding and repulsive. Even twenty-six years later and all sorts of advancements in CGI that have occurred in that time, the practical effects on display here never fail to achieve their desired effect and are never short of convincing. The effects would threaten to overwhelm the story if not for the performance of Jeff Goldblum who deserved an Oscar nomination (that was the same year Sigourney Weaver was nominated for Aliens, so I guess the Academy didn't want to show the genre too much respect). Even with poundage of grotesque makeup and prosthetics, he never fails to show the ever-dwindling human element of Brundle. Geena Davis is also good as the tortured Veronica, who can only stand by as the man she loves becomes something other than human and later must make a grueling choice about her own body. John Getz is also good as the slimy shyster but who is not without his reasons and who tries to do the right thing in the end.

The Fly also marks something of a transformation for its director. It is the last horror movie of David Cronenberg. No doubt he has made some fine films since then, but on the evidence of this effort, he would be welcome back to the genre at anytime with open arms. Still, what a way to go out.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen this movie since I was a kid, and only the TV version. I just read the plot summary on Wikipedia and got chills. I think it's time for another screening.

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