The Fly (1986)
After director David Cronenberg released his version of Stephen King's The Dead Zone in 1983, he took almost a three year break from directing before tackling an even more unusual project - a remake of a highly successful 1950's horror/monster film that featured Vincent Price, among others.
While the original 1958 version, directed by Kurt Neumann, was very successful, Cronenberg's update, which retains only the original's premise, is masterful and flawless. Although I'm also a huge Cronenberg fan and am thus biased towards his version of The Fly, my love of Vincent Price is as strong a bias in favor of the original. Additionally, Cronenberg's version focuses almost solely on two actors who are far from my favorites - Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis - so my granting The Fly high praise says even more about its excellence.
Although The Fly might be best experienced by someone who is completely unfamiliar with the plot, most people who hear about this film will already be familiar with the premise, plus the title gives it away to an extent, so I suppose it's not too damaging to relay the basics. Seth Brundle (Goldblum) is an experimental physicist who runs into Veronica Quaife (Davis) at a party for researchers. Quaife is a journalist looking for a big story and Brundle has one, although he's more interested in dating Quaife than revealing his secrets. Brundle talks her into coming back to his apartment, which is in a warehouse, and demonstrates a teleportation system that he's designed. The only problem is that he can only teleport inanimate objects. Quaife wants to run a story about it in a science magazine she freelances for. Brundle talks her into waiting and writing a book instead. The Fly is about the problems that ensue as he experiments on the teleportation of living things.
If we wanted to be really picky and critique The Fly as a work of realist science fiction it would have some problems. The idea of teleportation is problematic enough, but Brundle's approach is nothing like a real scientist's would be. He goes from trying to teleport stockings to baboons, for instance.
But this is a Cronenberg film. We're not there to get a lecture on experimental methodology; The Fly is horror, and Cronenberg is a master of the genre. With this in mind, criticisms of The Fly's science fall apart. The real point here is to slowly build tension and psychological claustrophobia leading to futility, desperation and nihilism; the horror of dreams not realized and having to consciously terminate them, all while emphasizing the subtexts of obsession and Cronenberg's ever-present criticism of technology. The Fly is the perfect vehicle for him to stress the dangers of allowing ourselves to play God and tamper with nature; how our primitive machines are no match for the complexities of what they're making attempts to emulate. It's not that Cronenberg is anti-technology; he's not a Luddite. His message is more cautionary and holistic.
Cronenberg's direction in The Fly features many of his stylistic stereotypes-dark, grayish tones, somber moods, ambiguous, gruesome biological masses and sex scenes that make us queasy as much as they titillate. That he can retain such strong signatures while producing such otherwise varied films is a mark of his potent, individualistic genius.
But part of the credit is also due to Cronenberg's consistency of crew. Carol Spier, for instance, the production designer on The Fly has done most of Cronenberg's films since The Dead Zone. It's rare for crews to continue relationships for so long, but if Cronenberg's films are any indication of the benefit, it should be encouraged.
Unfortunately both Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis have irritated me in their films as often as I've felt they've given good performances-although it's a personal quibble rather than a comment on their professionalism. But in The Fly, they're both at the top of their game and their performances so perfectly match the script and the direction that I like them here. Goldblum's descent into madness is poignant, disturbing and darkly comic at the same time. Davis' shock at his change mirrors him beautifully, and unlike say, Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist or Heather Whatshername in the atrocious Blair Witch Project, Davis doesn't overact; she doesn't run off whining and screaming so that you wish her dead just so that she'll shut up. Rather you feel her anguish and the profound dilemmas that she faces.
Cronenberg's focus on a small cast was a smart move that helps him build complexity in their relationships and in the viewer's reactions. Likewise with the minimal settings. It all adds up to a beautiful, bleak whole leading to a beautiful, bleak ending. Although followed by a very good sequel, The Fly stands on its own as one of the masterpieces of the genre.
DVD Notes (by Nate Yapp):
After a workable but unworthy release as a single-disc double-feature with The Fly II, David Cronenberg's The Fly finally gets its own platter -- two platters, in fact, as it's a 2-disc special edition worthy of such a brilliant film.
Disc 1 is the film itself, resplendent in a very precise-looking 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. For sound, check out the DTS 5.1 or Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, which are both very crisp and catch the gooeyness of the sound design. Cronenberg provides a commentary track which is informative, intelligent, and dryly humorous.
Disc 2 kicks off with a documentary that's over an hour longer than the film itself in its full form (it has a branching structure so that you can watch entertaining but not necessarily relevant bits at your leisure -- watching Jeff Goldblum discussing the sense of protection you feel for a character is a hoot. The interviewees are many -- Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz, Charles Edward Pogue, much of Cronenberg's crew, and a few producers all chime in on the process that was making The Fly.
Additionally, there's a series of deleted/extended scenes, all of which are interesting, and none of which you'd want to add back in for any particular reason. There's also some rare test footage of makeup & effects tests, including Cronenberg dressed as a very strange sort of fly to give the wall-walking room a spin.
If you're a reader, you can enjoy the original short story as published in "Playboy," Pogue's screenplay, or Cronenberg's revision of that screenplay. There are also three articles from film magazines that discuss the film's merits. Toss in your standard promotional materials and you have quite the revolution of the flesh imprinted on a plastic disc.