Fly, The (United States/Canada/United Kingdom, 1986)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

If any film is deserving of the term "re-imagination" as opposed to "remake," it's David Cronenberg's 1986 The Fly. Based loosely on the short story by George Lengelaan and its 1958 film adaptation, this movie uses the premise but jettisons everything else including names and basic plot points. Crediting Lengelaan is almost an act of courtesy since very little of his tale remains in the finished screenplay. As horror movies go, this one is atypical. It accomplishes something critical that too many entries into the genre ignores: character development and identification. Before the bloodletting starts and before we're warned to be "very afraid," the film allows us to get to know and like the protagonists, and that elevates what happens to tragedy.

The Fly is almost unique for a horror movie in that it compels us sympathize with and root for the characters. Until the very end, we hope against hope there's some way out of the situation that won't result in someone's guts being splattered all over the floor. Cronenberg has been heard to describe The Fly as a "romantic comedy," and while that might be stretching things a little (although it gives insight into Cronenberg's thinking), it's not entirely inaccurate. Love anchors this movie. Without it, it would just be a twisted version of Metamorphosis.

The Fly arrived in the midst of what could arguably be called the most fertile period of Cronenberg's career. With Scanners, Videodrome, and The Dead Zone just behind him and Dead Ringers still to come, The Fly was in good company. To date, it is easily his most commercially successful motion picture and it even won an Oscar (Makeup). It also spawned an inferior sequel, the less about which is said, the better.

One of the things Cronenberg attempts to do with the 1986 version of the film is to make the science believable. So the script, which he re-wrote extensively from a draft by Charles Edward Pogue, concentrates on plausibility. The science isn't "real" in the sense that it is achievable using today's techonology but it uses enough legitimate terms that it seems credible to those without specific training. The idea of fusing or splicing fly DNA with human DNA doesn't sound outlandish (especially in a climate where stem cells have become a hot political topic) and some of what happens to the main character is at least conceivable. We are also spared the unintentionally humorous concept of a fly with a little human head (which made an appearance in the 1958 movie).

Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a scientist who's convinced he's going to change the world. He doesn't get out much so when he has a chance to impress a woman reporter, Veronica (Geena Davis), he doesn't waste it. When he invites her back to his lab to see his experiment, it's not a line. The "experiment" in question involves a pair of "telepods" connected by 16 feet of cable. By using (primitive) computer control, Seth can transfer inanimate objects from one to the other, a la Star Trek's transporter beam. Unfortunately, he's not as lucky with living things, which end up looking like bloody, twitching scrambled eggs. As they spend time together, Veronica and Seth fall in love and she begins to record his progress. Through sex, Seth has a breakthrough about "flesh" and overcomes the flaw in his computer programming. He sends a baboon through and decides to try the process on himself. One problem: when Seth makes the journey, he's not alone. There's literally a fly in ointment and, on the other end, he is no longer human Seth but Brundlefly. At first, the effects appear to be positive - increased strength and stamina, and incredible energy. But then the ugliness starts to emerge and soon Brundlefly is beginning to resemble his lesser nature more and more.

The Fly can be divided into three acts. The first is an almost traditional love story. A shy, socially inept scientist meets a beautiful reporter. They fall in love but before committing to him, she has to divest herself of baggage - an ex-boyfriend named Stathis (John Getz) who also happens to be her editor. The second act mimics aspects of the superhero origin story as Seth discovers and explores his newfound abilities. Finally, during its last half-hour, The Fly descends into more traditional horror territory with a significant dollop of tragedy incorporated. There's blood and gore, acid vomit, and an oversized insect. At times, it's Alien-like. (A comparison Cronenberg would likely appreciate.)

The performers do effective work. Jeff Goldblum, a method actor, buries himself in the part. He makes the human Seth likeable and causes the viewer to feel sorrow and pity for Brundlefly. Geena Davis' most impressive contribution is that she exhibits chemistry with Goldblum; this isn't surprising since the two were dating at the time. Oh, and she gets to utter one of the best remembered lines of the 1980s: "Be afraid. Be very afraid." The third member of the triangle is played by John Getz, a veteran actor with a ton of TV exposure. Here, he's kind of slimy and not very sympathetic, and reminded me of Hart Bochner's oily character in Die Hard (which was still two years in the future.)

Chris Walas' makeup and creature effects won a Best Makeup Oscar but I found it to be a mixed bag. His work on Goldblum when the actor appears nearly human is very good. However, as the latex applications become thicker, they become more obviously false. Later, Brundlefly looks like a man in a rubber suit, which is effectively what he is. It should be noted that the final Brundlefly (either an animatronic creation or a puppet) is creepy and effective. It's the steps in between nearly-human and fully insect where the costumes and makeup lose an aspect of their credibility.

I wish that today's horror movies would use The Fly as a template. How wonderful it would be to sit in a theater and watch a fully developed story with real characters feeling real emotions yet with all the gore and terror one expects from such a genre feature. The Fly works on many levels because it is made with care and affection for the characters. When the inevitable happens at the end, tears are expected. There are also plenty of flinch-and-close-the-eyes gross-out moments, including one with a detachable ear and another involving fingernails (something that never fails to disturb an audiences). The Fly does not represent the absolute pinnacle of horror movies but a modern filmmaker could do worse than looking to this for inspiration. It's better than nearly everything currently out there and represents Cronenberg at the height of his creative powers.

Fly, The (United States/Canada/United Kingdom, 1986)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1986-08-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1