Tuesday 26 August 2008

'80s RETRO: The Fly (1986)

Tuesday 26 August 2008
Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: Charles Edward Pogue & David Cronenberg (based on a short story by George Langelaan)

Cast: Jeff Goldblum (Seth Brundle), Geena Davis (Veronica Quaife), John Getz (Stathis Borans), Joy Boushel (Tawny), Leslie Carlson (Dr. Brent Cheevers), George Chuvalo (Marky) & David Cronenberg (Gynaecologist)

A textbook example of how to properly remake a film, David Cronenberg's 1986 re-conceptualization of a 1958 B-movie (itself inspired by a short story) is an operatic tragedy and body-horror classic. Jeff Goldblum stars as Seth Brundle, eccentric scientist extraordinaire, who meets science-journo Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) at a party and decides to impress her by demonstrating his teleportation system back at his dilapidated warehouse abode. How's that for suave?

Awed by the revolution in global transport Seth's machine represents, Veronica's eager to tell the world -- until Seth reveals the fatal flaw of his "telepods": they can't transport fleshy people. After persuading her to hold off publishing an article about his invention, Seth allows Veronica to document his search for a breakthrough in organic teleportation, and the two fall head-over-heels in love in the process.

Unfortunately, during a spur-of-the-moment trip through the telepods while alone one night, Seth doesn't notice a stowaway in his pod: a housefly. Now genetically-fused with the insect and consequently endowed with great strength, stamina and dexterity (which he wrongly attributes to a "purification" side-effect), Seth's relationship with Veronica falls apart just as quickly as his body -- which disintegrates and gradually starts to morph into that of a fly.

Sci-fi horror concepts don't come much juicier or hideously compelling, and Cronenberg's particular fascination with the human body and insects makes The Fly tailor-made for his passions. It's very hard to imagine a more perfect marriage of director and subject-matter, as the cheesiness of the 1958 original is repackaged by Cronenberg into a tense, emotional, gruesome spectacle.

Goldblum's gangly scientist is one of his finest screen roles, before his curious inflection and irregular speech patterns became part-and-parcel of every Goldblum performance. Specific to The Fly, it helps that there's already something bug-like about Goldblum (watch for his darting eyes in the opening scene), and Seth's physical decay is poignantly handled by the actor from under a body-suit of increasingly grotesque make-up.

Davis is a perfect romantic fit for Goldblum; being an actress of similar attitude and idiosyncrasy she makes for a plausible, sympathetic lover. Her reactions to the spiralling events are believable, too -- well, ignoring the moment she agrees to accompany nutty stranger Seth back to his spooky warehouse, which would send most ordinary women running. Fortunately, Seth didn't want to test the sharpness of an axe under his bed. More importantly, you can sense the connection between the pair and Veronica's disgust, fear and sadness over Seth's situation is handled well by Davis.

The Fly is practically a two-hander between Goldblum and Davis, punctuated by few diversions beyond Seth's lab (a woman Seth "wins" in an arm wrestle, a maggot birth nightmare -- complete with Cronenberg cameo). The only other actor of note is John Getz (Stathis Borans), Veronica's slimy ex-boyfriend and magazine boss. Oddly, Stathis starts the picture as an unlikeable creep and becomes something of a hero towards the end, almost by accident.

For gorehounds, The Fly is a noteworthy entry in the "body horror" sub-genre that proliferated in the '80s, and the effects work from Chris Walas (who went on to direct risible '89 sequel, The Fly II) is another component of the film's overall success. The make-up and camera trickery are all great, and Walas' animatronic man-fly of the finale (with its sad, blinking bug-eyes) is a solid reminder of how practical effects are often more fun than photo-real CGI.

Overall, The Fly is a wonderful film where director, actors, premise and design all pulled together to craft a modern sci-fi classic. Howard Shore's bold score is also very majestic and exciting; no wonder he and Cronenberg collaborated on a stage opera of this film in '08. The Fly is grungy and weird enough to retain a mostly cult following after 2 decades, but its B-movie premise and intermittent gore never obscures the film's aim to show us a compelling, self-destructive, doomed romance.

20th Century Fox
Budget: $15 million
95 minutes