Sunday, August 26, 2012

Film #84: The Fly (1986)

Director: David Cronenberg

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: around 5 or 6 (last time probably 20 years ago)

Rapid-Fire Summary:

At a science convention, an eager young journalist, Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) meets an eccentric and enthusiastic man named Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum). Brundle swears to Veronica that he is sitting on the invention that will change human history. Though skeptical at first, Veronica is curious enough to follow Brundle to his warehouse laboratory and finds that he has created telepods – mechanical devices that can transport matter instantaneously from one location to another. The only problem is that it can only work on inorganic objects. Brundle proclaims, though, that he will work this out soon enough.

Over the next few weeks and months, Veronica chronicles Brundle's attempts to solve the “organic matter” problem, and begins a romantic relationship with the quirky yet charming genius. He eventually figures out how to transport organic matter, though he waits before attempting it on a human. One night, however, in a drunken fit of daring, Brundle steps into the pod and successfully transports himself. What he doesn't know, though, is that a housefly has flown into the pod at the same time, and that they have both been fused on a genetic level.

As the next few days and weeks unfold, Brundle begins to undergo and gradual yet steady transformation. At first, he shows phenomenal strength and energy levels. Eventually, though his skin starts to change and he begins to exhibit territorial and violent tendencies. Brundle discovers the truth about how he and the fly are now becoming some sort of mutated hybrid of each other, and tries to discover some way to stop it. His efforts fail, however, and he continues his horrifying metamorphosis.

Dr. Seth Brundle, next to his greatest invention, and the very thing that will spell his grisly doom.

Making matters even more terrifying is the fact that Veronica discovers that she is pregnant with Seth's baby. While she had previously been attempting to help Seth find a cure, she has had to flee from his increasingly brutal and warped nature. When she goes to have an abortion of their child, Seth abducts her from the hospital and brings her to his lab. The now-barely recognizable Brundle hopes to enact a mad plan by which he will transport and fuse himself, Veronica, and their unborn child into one creature. Brundle almost succeeds, if not for Veronica's past lover and current editor, who fends off Brundle long enough for Veronica to escape.

In the end, a mishap with the telepods leaves the Brundle/fly creature fused with part of the pod. The creature claws its way to Veronica and begs for the mercy of death, which Veronica grants by shooting it.

My Take (Done after this most recent viewing):

This movie still packs every bit of punch that it had 26 years ago.

The Fly is as horrifying as it is compelling. I'm not any kind of horror film buff, but I'll take one in every once in a while. From what I have seen in the decades since David Cronenberg's science-fiction horror show, I can't think of another film that is as powerfully hypnotic and terrifying.

As stated at the end of my last review, I remember watching this movie many times when it was available on VHS, back when I was 12 and 13 years old. I was certainly freaked out by it back then, and I'm pretty sure that I'll have a few nightmares after this most recent viewing as well. As a kid, I was enthralled by the special effects that transformed Jeff Goldblum into the titular creature. These were, of course, the very things that brought The Fly to popular consciousness back in 1986. To this day, they hold up amazingly well, and they illicit the same visceral reaction now that they always have and always will.

This montage shows the stomach-turning devolution of Dr. Brundle. Watching it unfold throughout the film is part of the macabre magnetism.

The visuals, though, tell only a part of what makes this movie so powerful. Primarily, it is that, right up to the end, you care about the people involved. This includes, surprisingly, the monster that Dr. Brundle becomes. In the early going, we quickly see that he is quirky, brilliant, and oddly charismatic. The love that develops between him and Veronica feels very genuine. This is what makes his slow and terrible transformation and destruction so tragic.

The character of Veronica amplifies this even more. Through the entire macabre affair, she tries to help Brundle, even towards the end, when virtually nothing of the man that she loves is left. Arguably the most powerful scene is the final one. As the Brundle creature emerges from the telepod, now an utterly grotesque fusion of the man, the fly, and hulking parts of an inanimate telepod, the tale does not go the traditional horror movie route. In nearly all horror films, the monster makes a final lunge at the fleeing humans, only to be killed in self defense. In The Fly, instead, the monster crawls up to Veronica and makes a final plea for the release of death by gently drawing the shotgun to its own head. This shows that there is some final shred of humanity, if only in the form of self-pity, left inside of it. It is a pathetic emotion, but one that inspires just enough compassion to give the tale its final cruel and tragic twist.

A less obvious theme in the film is that of primal, animal attraction. In the beginning stages of Brundle's transformation, when he still appears to be human, he shows phenomenally enhanced strength and drive. One just has to look at the faces of Veronica and Tawny during these stages to see how attracted they are to his seeming virility, while at the same time being slightly afraid. These are two very basic, very tightly interwoven compulsions in humans, whether we want to admit it or not. It is also these same two aspects that Cronenberg explored more overtly in A History of Violence.

Through most of the movie, including most of his repulsive metamorphosis, Goldblum makes Seth Brundle a far more sympathetic character than you might expect.

The storytelling is incredibly tight. Even though there were plenty of the quieter, more interpersonal scenes that I had forgotten from my childhood viewings, the movie never slows down. Right from the opening scenes, we get caught up in the wonder of discovery and the potential for what Dr. Brundle has created. We then get the thrill of watching him improve and develop his invention so that it can transport organic matter. Once he teleports himself, not knowing that the fly has been fused with him, it's almost impossible to stop watching. Especially if you haven't seen the movie before, waiting to find out just how far Brundle's physical appearance will deteriorate is a bizarre magnet, pulling us along.

The performances certainly enhance, if not necessarily make, the movie. Geena Davis does a fine job expressing the compassion, disgust, and revulsion that the part requires. More than her, though, is Jeff Goldblum. Once you see this movie, it is no mystery as to why he has been typecast as “the creepy yet charismatic scientist” in no less than a half dozen films. In The Fly, Goldblum exhibited probably the widest range of his acting life, going from the shy, witty, brilliant innovator to the brute creature, while retaining an oddly charming gallows humor through nearly the entire gut-wrenching affair. It was a feat that few actors could have pulled off.

The Fly is one of those films that is powerful in so many different ways that I can see why it is considered “great”. That being said, it is disturbing and grotesque enough that I can't see myself watching it again for at least a very long time. Fortunately, though, it is a film that imprints itself so strongly in one's mind, that watching it twice in a short time is an effort in redundancy.

That's a wrap. 84 shows down. 21 to go.

Coming Soon: The Singing Detective (1986):

This promises to be a more light-hearted affair than the last made-for-TV film series that I watched, Berlin Alexanderplatz. I really don't know anything about it, though. This is often a very good thing, and I'll find out soon enough.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.