With The Fly, Cronenberg made a name for himself amongst more mainstream movie goers. It offered a more straightforward plot and even a good old fashioned love triangle. The film earned Oscar recognition by capturing a golden statuette for its remarkable make up effects. Needless to say, The Fly was his biggest movie yet and remains the one he is the most recognized for, even till this day. But anyone fearing Cronenberg gave a subpar, mainstream film should toss those fears out the window. The Fly is a masterpiece of the horror genre, and an excellent, excellent piece of cinema. When comparing this film to the masterpiece of another great filmmaker who chose to do things a bit differently one time, I keep thinking of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. The latter had all the Tarantino stylish hallmarks, such as great casting and acting, slick dialogue and impromptu violence, but it had a heart and two characters that the audience could genuinely sympathize with. It’s pretty much the same with The Fly. Plenty of great Cronenberg material for all to enjoy but with a touching love story at the heart of it all.
Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a hard working and brilliant scientist who is attempting to conceive of a device that would push the boundaries of how humans perform travelling. In essence, Brundle is determined with finalizing a teleportation device. A duel-pod (beehive shaped) machine that would, theoretically, teleport one being or object from one pod to the other. The idea would involve a rather complex and sophisticated process by which the molecules that constitute the being would detach themselves from the object, be removed from the space in the original pod, and finally reappear in the second pod, perfectly glued back together again as they were before the trip occurred. This or something like that. Dr. Bundle explains it much better in the film anyways. The important thing to recognize is that the process deconstruction and reconstruction of the object being teleported at the molecular level. The system not being fully ready yet, one wouldn’t want to cause any molecular damage by teleporting more than one object at a time…
While Brundle may be a lonely man, fortune seems to smile at him for a while when he meets Veronica (Geena Davis), a reporter for a science magazine. They go well together, like peanut butter and bread, and while initially their relationship purely professional, as Veronica is privy to observing Brundle’s work for a report, but that partnership eventually blossoms into something more personal. Her editor, Stathis Borans (John Getz), certainly doesn’t appreciate this buddying rapport between Brundle and Veronica, and much of that probably stems from the fact that Stathis and Veronica are former lovers. That relationship failed bitterly and now Stathis gets the privilege of playing the role of the jealous, power wielding editor. Clearly, Stathis still longs to have Veronica back in his arms, but he also thinks Brundle to be a somewhat of an annoyance. Sooner or later, something’s gonna give of course.
Brundle’s pioneering ways get the better of him one night however. He boldly tries to do what no man has ever done before: teleport himself. The attempt is made and it would appear that Bundle leaves the second pod perfectly intact. Success! He has completed one of the most daring research and science projects ever known to Man! Ah, but there was but one tiny, puny hiccup that occurred during the process: a fly took the trip with our friend Seth. Remember that mumbo jumbo I wrote earlier about possible molecular damage or fusion? Yeah, that turns out to be true as Bundle slowly, very slowly in fact, begins to change behaviour…and physically until he is but a shadow of his former self. In more ways than one in fact.
The Fly gets to me when I watch it, and I’ve seen a few times. It offers a superb marriage between great Cronenberg themes of the past, most notably the fear of bodily harm (fear of the flesh), that fear becoming a reality and its psychological and behavioural effects on a person’s identity, their character, their ‘self’, with a worthwhile mainstream love triangle plot. The movie tackles the notion of flesh in a slightly different way than in some of the earlier Cronenberg films. That theme is directly applied to the story of the main character. As a scientist attempting to teleport live beings through a process of molecular vaporazitionathngywhatever, he must understand flesh and how to master it. Failure to do this ultimately leads to the transformation and destruction of his own flesh. There’s even some Frankenstein in there as well, although this time Frankenstein is the scientist and the monster all at once.
The brilliant but sometimes frightening attempts of mankind to push the bounderies of technology and to control what, under normal circumstances, shouldn’t or couldn’t be controlled, is endlessly fascinating. When a movie scientist played by Jeff Goldblum is doing it, it’s even better. When those attempts fail accidentally and the shit hits the fan suddenly, it’s all kinds of fun. In a twisted sense, Bundle is like a martyr for his cause, even though he never intended to become one (nor a fly). Theoretically he does prove that his invention functions and it, if used correctly, could prove to be endlessly beneficial to society. His downfall is purely accidental, cause by the silliest of mistakes: he didn’t sweep the pod clean before commencing the test run. He really should have, it’s not a particularly demanding exercise and it is absolutely essential. In his giddy excitement he was blinded, and overlooked a mundane but all-important task. A bloody fly killed him after all! Still, it feels as though there is nonetheless the undertone of a specific moral lesson, that is, some things just shouldn’t be toyed with. Fly too close to the sun and you can lose your wings.
But the accident and the horrific side effects are effective for another, altogether more basic reason: Brundle is a nice bloke. Sure, he can be a bit obsessive regarding his pet project sometimes, but the viewer can still sympathize with him. A lot of the credit goes to the actor Jeff Goldbum. I don’t wish to take anything away from the writing, which I think does a fine job at setting up the principal characters, especially Seth Brundle. However, Goldblum is one of those actors who is excellent at infusing a certain likability in the characters he portrays. I can understand how some people don’t appreciate his acting style and how he can get on their nerves, what with his fast mumbles and beady-eye staring, but I can’t help but love the guy. Brundle feels like a real character, someone who the audience can cheer for and, ultimately, feel deeply sorry for.
Both Davis and Getz also give fine performances given the material that’s awarded to them. Davis and Goldblum in particular have great chemistry together, and so even though they get together a bit too quickly in the early stages of the story, they work well off one another. This reinforces, I believe, the likability of the two protagonists. Getz plays Stathis like a good villain in the pure Hollywood sense of the term. Cocky, mischievous, determined to get his way, all the ingredients are there for a great villain. Mind you, those ingredients do not equate to an original villain. I’d be hard pressed to argue what makes Stathis a different type of bad guy. He even sports a villainous beard! It comes to the actor portraying the role for the a character like this to really pop on the screen, and so much of the credit has to go to Getz for his performance. He has very few scenes with Goldblum specifically, but several with Davis and, for the mot part, they’re pretty good. He’s not maniacal
Which brings us to the film’s greatest triumph and surprise. The fact of the matter is that the movie is a love story. It’s one that spells doom and gloom for one of the two lovers, but The Fly possesses an emotional core that viewers can relate to. Director Cronenberg, who also performed some touch ups on the script, rarely deals with material that carries this much emotional weight, and to see it work so well is as surprising as it is satisfying. It makes for a slightly different Cronenberg experience, one that delivers both some of his more traditional ideas and visual elements as well as offering something mainstream audiences generally enjoy. At first glance, if one has not watched the film, it would seem like a pure horror story, but closer inspection reveals much more to be boiling beneath the pot’s cover.
Of course, there is also the matter of the makeup which helped bring Brundle’s eerie transformation to life. As I wrote earlier in this review, the superb job of the makeup team was rewarded at the Oscars that year, and with good reason. As Bundle’s physical metamorphosis enters deeper stages, he suffers more and more hideous bodily alterations, from teeth decay, rotting skin, the growth of strange and slimy insect parts, etc. Even by today’s standards, the effects work in The Fly is incredible. In our day and age, where digital effects take precedence over most other techniques, it’s great to look back at a time when practical effects ruled the day. The Fly looks complex and anything but practical. Suffice to say that Bundle’s transformation from human to fly looks disgusting and real. One can only take makeup for its face value however (ha ha). The performer still has a job in conveying the emotions of the character. Again, Goldblum delivers in spades. The physical change is simultaneous with his switch of character and behaviour. He picks up new, unusual ticks and behavioural habits as his old physical self becomes a new creature. His entire identity leaves him as he unwillingly adopts a new one, a fate which many Cronenberg characters seem to suffer.
Whatever faults the film may have, they never affect my viewing experience. By the closing credits, I’m under the impression that a great tragedy has concluded, a story in which a bright, eager and decent man experiences the worst and last accident of his entire life. Watching the ‘making of’ documentary on the DVD (which I would definitely encourage anyone to buy since it’s a) a fantastic DVD and b) its price has dropped in the past few years) I learned that the pre-production stage experienced some considerable problems, including a last minute director change (the director previously attached had to leave the project due to serious personal reasons). Oftentimes, a chaotic pre-production stage is seen as a bad omen to the rest of production, which subsequently leads to a sub-par movie. This was absolutely not the case with The Fly. It’s a classic tale of a scientific experiment gone haywire, but with those great Cronenberg touches. If you’re a fan of the director and somehow, someway, have not seen this movie, then you have some homework to do.
Not done with The Fly? Check out the review from the dude who wants to have my baby at Bill's Movie Emporium.