Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Fly (1986)

This masterpiece from David Cronenberg is somewhat of a culmination of his body horror movies and the themes they expressed, only he takes it a step further by an unprecedented buildup of sympathies as the horror progresses. Never have I seen a movie in which a director has managed the tonal balance of disgust and compassion so expertly, building to a crescendo wherein the most disturbing creation Cronenberg's ever conjured-a man fully turned into a fly-coincides with the greatest amount of pity he's ever given to a character. 

Cronenberg was hired to direct this remake of the 1958 Kurt Neumann version of the short story that was originally published in Playboy in 1957. Given how perfectly the film fits into his oeuvre, it's a bit surprising that he wasn't supposed to direct the film at all, and when it was originally in development he was working on making Total Recall. That project fell through, and when The Fly's original director, John Bierman, left the film due to his daughter's tragic death, the movie was Cronenberg's. It's a sad beginning to a very sad film in that Bierman, though clearly not on Cronenberg's technical or aesthetic level, is stated as saying he wanted to make a truly great movie, and that Mel Brooks (an uncredited producer on the film) gave him several months to recover from his personal tragedy, but even then the director, understandably, could not muster up the passion with which he originally approached the project.

But even given Bierman's original intent on greatness, it's unlikely he could have come up with the vision Cronenberg achieved, especially because this was not just the case of a director-for-hire, but of Cronenberg, as ususal, truly making the movie his own. He re-fashioned the script to suit his own interests, brought on the same crew he had worked with on previous movies (though, as Cronenberg superfans probably know, this was his last film with DP Mark Irwin-all of his movies following this were shot by the great Peter Suschitzky), and even personally selected Jeff Goldblum for the lead, despite the fact that make up artist Chris Walas wanted someone with small ears and nose to make the fly-morphing scenes easier to create. Not a huge issue, though, especially considering the fact that Goldblum is one of those rare actors who's equally convincing as a geeky scientist and a strapping dude (and very tall, as well-6-5, which is one of the reasons the 6-0 Geena Davis, Goldblum's girlfriend at the time, was cast as his love interest, making the many two-shots of them a little less jarring) two attributes that are vital to his character. The brainy part of him is certainly more obvious, as the genius of his character, Seth Brundle, is apparent from the get-go: the very first thing he shows Davis' Veronica upon taking her to his laboratory/apartment is his potentially-groundbreaking teleportation device. His total commitment to scientific/intellectual endeavors is evident in other ways too, like his Einsteinian fashion choice of owning identical sets of clothing as not to waste time deciding what to wear each day. 

But it's the other part of him, the physicality, the sturdy good looks, and his realization that a woman might find him attractive that I find most compelling. After all, what is The Fly but a love story undone by detrimental scientific ambition? When Veronica seductively tugs at his tie and comments on his cuteness, Brundle's timorous response "Am I?" suggests this is the first time he's let a woman woo him.

The love story element is vital to the film not just because of the Veronica/Seth relationship, but also because of the jealousy of Veronica's editor and ex-boyfriend, Stathis Borans (John Getz of Blood Simple fame--also not the only time he played an editor-see Zodiac). While he does initially seem to simply be playing the part of the bitter asshole ex, Cronenberg actually gives his character a lot more weight upon deeper consideration. While his sneaking into Veronica's apartment and taking a shower, or asking her for sex as a form of stress relief aren't exactly redeemable actions, why would he show up in a department store where Veronica is shopping and make a fool of himself in expressing his concern over her budding relationship with Brundle unless he felt a real emptiness over her absence from his life? Further, his growing sense of responsibilty for Veronica once Brundle begins to morph into a fly climaxes in a scene where he becomes the traditional hero of the story, albeit with a somewhat tragic end (I should add, though, that this is the story of co-heroes, with Borans operating in a more chivalric tradition, while his counterpart, Brundle, is heroic in his ultimate request for death).

I should also add that the entire reason Brundle goes inside the pod, unknowingly accompanied by a pesky fly, to see if his creation works with humans, is because he is drunkenly upset over his suspicion that Veronica might be involved with Borans (I wonder if Josh Trank was inspired by this for the similar drunken teleportation sequence from Fantastic Four). This is all to say that for all its brilliant make-up and special effects, and for its commitment to taking scientific terminology and ideas seriously, The Fly ultimately resonates and lasts for its human storyline, the wonderful idea of what it would be like if a man alienated from romance because of his commitment to science suddenly fell in love, but then that commitment to science ultimately tore the love apart. 

This is also why that for all its queasy, horrific, and disgusting elements in its last half, the predominating feeling in The Fly is one of sadness, a disquieting sense of melancholy that science didn't just end a man's life, but kept him from the kind of human love he probably never got the chance to really feel. For a movie about a man turning into an insect and spouting lines about becoming "the first political insect," this might be Cronenberg's most human film ever. 

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