The Fly

The Fly

****

Reviewed by: Themroc

The Fly started life as a short story by an otherwise obscure science fiction writer named George Langelaan. In 1958, it was adapted into a B-movie directed by Kurt Neumann and starring Vincent Price. A cautionary tale for the atomic age, it told the story of a scientist who invents a machine capable of disassembling, transmitting and reassembling matter. When he attempts to transport himself, however, he fails to notice a housefly trapped in the teleportation chamber with him. The unintended result is that when they emerge at the other end he and the fly find the machine has mismatched their body parts.

As Cronenberg points out in his director’s commentary, one of the problems with the original story (and the first adaptation) is that, besides looking ludicrous, a transformation of this kind has no internal logic. Even if the machine were capable of picking and mixing limbs like a child playing with potato men, it would also need to be capable of performing a rescaling process necessary to make them fit their new bodies.

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David Cronenberg’s intelligent re-working of Langelaan’s story starts from the same premise, but updates it to incorporate the better understanding of genetics, DNA and the double helix that science acquired during the intervening thirty-odd years. Instead of arbitrarily transplanting bits and pieces of the two creatures, the machine fuses them at a molecular genetic level. Initially the housefly is simply incorporated into the body of the human being, but gradually its stronger and more resilient DNA starts to take over resulting in a gradual transformation that, like a pernicious virus or parasite, at first exhilarates the host before slowly destroying it.

Not only does this reinterpretation make the story seem more scientifically and dramatically plausible (at least on its own terms), but it also feeds directly into Cronenberg’s well-established concerns. Cronenberg’s work has always been informed by the strange and almost alien nature of our own viscera as well a Ballardian interest in man’s uneasy relationship with technology.

However, what makes The Fly more successful than any of Cronenberg’s previous films (and most of his subsequent ones) is that he finally managed to yoke these ideas to a coherent narrative and interesting, three-dimensional characters. The decision to cast Jeff Goldblum in the central role of wunderkind inventor Seth Brundle is inspired. Goldblum, like Christopher Walken (who had just worked with Cronenberg on The Dead Zone) is a mannered performer but also a nuanced, intelligent and strangely charismatic actor. He captures Brundle’s early eccentricity and nerdiness but nevertheless manages to imbue the character with a certain grace and integrity that not only makes his romantic involvement with reporter Veronica Quaife seem like a convincing development rather than a plot contrivance, but also lends a genuinely tragic dimension to his deterioration. Even as he vomits on his food prior to eating it and becomes progressively more obscured under grotesque prosthetics and make-up, the character retains a wretched humanity.

Cronenberg admits that he originally had his doubts about casting Geena Davis in the role of Veronica. However, not only do she and Goldblum enjoy genuine chemistry (they were lovers at the time), but her performance is a large part of the reason why the film succeeds in being so disturbing. The Fly can be read as an allegory about an unspecified degenerative disease or the inevitable wasting process that leads to death, but although Brundle’s physical collapse is genuinely distressing in its own right, it is Davis’ portrayal of pity and compassion feuding with revulsion and fear that makes the film most upsetting.

Unfortunately, John Getz’s eye-rolling performance as Veronica’s sleazy editor/ex-boyfriend Stathis Borans is so badly misdirected that it almost upsets the applecart. It’s a shame because Getz is an under-used character actor (Cronenberg spotted him in Blood Simple) and the role of Borans is a well-written one and occupies a potentially interesting place in the narrative. I suppose that Cronenberg was worried that he risked diluting audience sympathy for Brundle by extending it to his jilted love rival. Whatever the real reason, it’s a lapse of judgement that almost erases the character’s ambivalence and instead turns Borans - particularly in the film’s early stages - into a repulsive caricature.

There are other slightly irritating flaws that drag the film kicking and screaming back to its B-movie origins. Brundle’s computer, for instance, is one of those fantastical machines that tend to crop up in bad science fiction movies, which responds clearly and in detail to arbitrary questions typed in English. Brundle later announces that he is going to “teach it about the poetry of the flesh”, so it will transport living organic matter, as if this is a task on a par with re-tuning the television or unblocking the sink. And in the final 15 minutes, the hitherto tightly developed plotting suddenly becomes quite badly unglued.

And yet, in spite of these problems (and some of the Eighties clothes and hairstyles), the film has nevertheless stood the test of time remarkably well. This is partly due to deft handling of the film’s atmospherics (Mark Irwin’s photography and Howard Shore’s score are both terrific), but also because the story contains a simple and unsentimental emotional truth that taps into both our fear of foreign bodies and the suppressed anxiety we feel about our own inevitable decay.

Reviewed on: 06 Jun 2006
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The Fly packshot
A scientist invents a teleportation device, but accidentally splices his DNA with that of a housefly when testing it.
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Scott Macdonald *****

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: Charles Edward Pogue, David Cronenberg, based on a short story by George Langelaan

Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz, Joy Boushel, Leslie Carlson, George Chuvalo, Michael Copeman, David Cronenberg, Carol Lazare, Shawn Hewitt

Year: 1986

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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