The Fly (1986) [DVD]
Screenplay : Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1986
Stars : Jeff Goldblum (Seth Brundle), Gena Davis (Ronnie Quiafe), John Getz (Stathis Borans, Joy Boushel (Tawny), Les Carlson (Dr. Cheevers)
Near the middle of David Cronenberg's "The Fly," the main character, a brilliant scientist named Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), declares, "You can't penetrate beyond society's sick, grave fear of the flesh."
That statement essentially summarizes the cinematic career of David Cronenberg. Throughout all his films, from his early horror movies like "The Brood" (1979) to his highly controversial adaptation of J.G. Ballard's "Crash" (1996), his central aim has always been penetrating the fear we have of our own bodies by distorting them. As Steven Shaviro noted in his excellent book, "The Cinematic Body," "David Cronenberg's films focus insistently, obsessively on the body.... They are unsparingly visceral; that is what makes them so disturbing."
In the history of cinema, there has been no filmmaker more adept at making us feel uneasy about our own bodies than Cronenberg. His entire oeuvre (especially his early films) is a catalog of human grotesquerie, mutation, and biological horror. In "Shivers" (1975), a parasite invades a high-tech apartment building and turns its inhabitants into libidinal zombies, which has often been read as a metaphor for venereal disease. In "Rabid" (1977), an ordinary woman becomes a vampiric creature after plastic surgery, and in "Videodrome" (1982) the human body finds its ultimate role in becoming the servant of video technology, the literal merging of the flesh and the mechanical.
Yet, Cronenberg does not detest the body, as film scholar Robin Wood has argued, and his primary aim is not simply to drive his audience to revulsion, a point that has been made by Pauline Kael. Instead, these extreme examples of biological horror are simply a means of making his audience face and deal with their physical bodily existence. The fact that his films cause such unease is testament to his filmmaking abilities and the way in which they tap into preexisting fears.
In terms of generating unease about our own bodies, Cronenberg's real masterpiece is his 1986 film "The Fly," which is a loose remake of the late '50s cult classic in which a scientist finds himself with the head and arm of a housefly after an experiment with a teleportation device goes terribly wrong. Cronenberg and co-screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue maintain this basic scenario, but they twist it by having the effects of being genetically combined with a fly emerge gradually, like a degenerative disease.
When Brundle first emerges from his great invention, a teleportation device that breaks down an object in one pod and then reassembles it in another, he thinks that the machine has somehow improved him. Full of energy and vigor and with strength and agility he has never known before, he lives briefly under the delusion that he has become superhuman.
That delusion quickly fades once his exterior begins to break down. Lesions appear on his face, his fingernails start to fall off, and strange, wiry hairs grow from his back. His personality changes with his physical mutations, which serves to strengthen the connection between the mind and body; in Cronenberg's films, the mind and body are inextricably linked, which breaks down traditional (and often reassuring in the times of disease) Cartesian notions of a mind/body split. In Cronenberg's world, when the body is in turmoil, so is the spirit.
Brundle's girlfriend, a science journalist named Ronnie (Geena Davis), tries to help him, but there is nothing that can be done. Like so many bodies in Cronenberg's films, Brundle's is out of control. There is nothing he can do but go through denial before eventually accepting his fate: He is becoming Brundlefly, a new life form that has never existed before.
To many, "The Fly" is merely another Cronenbergian exercise in being gross. To be sure, the movie is quite sickening in the visceral detail with which Cronenberg documents Brundle's metamorphosis. Physical change of this magnitude is an ugly thing, and Cronenberg's camera never shies away from any of it.
Yet, the film is much deeper than its sci-fi/horror surface. The metaphorical possibilities inherent in the material have led people to read "The Fly" in many ways, most notably as an allegory about AIDS. This reading can be supported, but I see it in more general terms as another means by which Cronenberg can make us face our existence as physical creatures. With virtual reality and cyberspace becoming more prevalent, the idea of separating ourselves from our physical bodies is becoming more and more plausible. What Cronenberg pushes is the notion that, no matter what, we always have to return to our flesh.
Where other Cronenberg films have collapsed under the heavy weight of their own ideas (despite its many virtues, can anyone actually explain the last 15 minutes of "Videodrome"?), "The Fly" succeeds. Perhaps this is because the idea is more simple, more primal. The deterioration of the human body is as primal a concept as there is, and it is something most everyone has considered, especially those who have been first-hand witness to the many degenerative human diseases that are still incurable.
The film also works largely on the performers and their characters. Cronenberg's previous films did have particularly likable or identifiable characters, so Goldblum's amiable Seth Brundle is something of a standout. Although Brundle's personality changes with practically every scene, he still maintains his basic humanity, even in the worst situations. This is testament to the fine performance by Goldblum, who is so convincing as a brilliant scientist that he has become typecast in the role ("Jurassic Park," "Independence Day"). His romantic relationship with Geena Davis' Ronnie is affecting and believable, so when Ronnie is forced to do the unthinkable at the end of the film, it an overwhelmingly emotional, as well as horrific, scene.
Cronenberg's film was followed a few years later by an inferior, yet still interesting sequel, "The Fly II". Directed by Chris Walas, who designed the creature effects for the first film, "The Fly II" is a more straightforward horror film that picks up where the original left off. Ronnie, pregnant with Brundle's child, dies while giving horrible birth to what turns out to be a seemingly normal baby. Since the baby was conceived after Brundle's genetic combination with a fly, there is great expectation that the child will carry those same characteristics.
While "The Fly" concentrated heavily on issues surrounding the human body, "The Fly II" takes a wider view and becomes a cautionary story about runaway capitalistic greed. Similar to the capitalist critique in James Cameron's "Aliens" (1986), "The Fly II" establishes a fictional megacorporation, Bartock, which was mentioned briefly in the first film as the company the financed Brundle's experiments. Bartock is run by its namesake, Mr. Bartock (Lee Richardson), a vicious capitalist predator disguised as a harmless old businessman. Literally deluded by his God complex, Bartock assumes ownership of Martin, the Brundle child, who grows up under the watchful, uncaring eye of his scientists and lab technicians without ever seeing the outside world.
Things are different for Martin because he grows at an accelerated rate. By the time he is five years old, he is in the body of a normal 20-year-old. Played by Eric Stoltz, who had already played shy, misunderstood teenagers in "Mask" (1985) and "Some Kind of Wonderful" (1987), Martin is a hero not unlike his father. Starting off shy and socially inept, once his mutations begin to take over, he changes into a murderous, yet sympathetic villain. Martin does not need to go through the teleporter to experience genetic mutation into Brundlefly; it is already written into his genetic code. Hence, it is only a matter of time.
"The Fly II" is actually grosser than the first film, but it also far more clumsy. Walas is a much better special effects designer than he is a director, and the final third of the film in which Martin, as the enormous mutated Brundlefly, stalks the Bartock compound wrecking havoc and murdering anyone who did him wrong earlier in the film, is an awkward concoction of science fiction horror and slasher diatribes. Walas is so intent on grossing out his audience out that he stages death after death, each other a little more vicious and ineptly filmed than the first. At one point, a character's head is crushed by a descending elevator in gratuitous close-up, but the lackluster editing robs the scene of any impact because it is obvious that he had plenty of time to get out of the way.
Yet, the movie almost redeems itself in the end by finishing with grand poetic justice for Bartock, the immoral businessman. So intent on owning the Brundle genetic mutation in order to exploit it for his own profits, Bartock eventually finds himself on the worst of the receiving end. Death is too good for him, and the final shot is a great moment of deserved misery.
|The Fly / The Fly II Fox Double Feature DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (both)|
Dolby 2.0 Surround (both)
|Languages||English (5.1, 2.0)|
|Supplements||Original theatrical trailers for both films|
Original theatrical trailers for other Fox Double Feature DVDs, including "The Fly"/"Return of the Fly" and "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea"/"Fantastic Voyage"
|Distributor||20th Century Fox|
|Both films have been transferred in anamorphic widescreen in their original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, but there is a stark difference between their respective visual qualities. "The Fly" looks quite good, with nice detail and fairly solid black levels. The film's color scheme is purposefully muted, giving the film a dark, edgy look. "The Fly II" tries to replicate this look, but the transfer here is exceptionally grainy. There are numerous sequences in which large parts of the screen are dark, and film grain is abundant almost to the point of distraction. Colors and flesh tones looks good, but some of the detail suffers.|
|Both films are available in both newly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks and Dolby 2.0 surround tracks. Both soundtracks are nicely rendered, with strong bass and good imaging for the musical scores. Both films are replete with disgusting sound effects of flesh pulling apart, body parts falling off, and slime oozing, all of which is given excellent aural treatment.|
|The only supplements on the disc are original theatrical trailers for both "The Fly" and "The Fly II," both of which are presented in full screen. The disc also features as trailers for four other movies that Fox is offering on double-feature DVDs: the original 1958 "The Fly" and its 1959 sequel "Return of the Fly" (both in nonanamorphic widescreen) and "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" (in nonanamorphic widescreen) and "Fantastic Voyage" (in full frame).|
©2000 James Kendrick