The Fly (Special Edition) Review
It took guts to make The Fly. I don't mean the explicit gore or the incredibly complex make-up. I'm talking about the courage it took in 1986 to make a sincere, heartfelt love story and take it all the way to its logical conclusion. Without excessive sentimentality or Love Story style sanitisation, David Cronenberg turns his remake of the cult 1950s monster movie into an emotionally shattering experience which is one of his most intense films. It's hard to watch; not only because it takes a strong stomach to cope with the necessarily gruesome special effects but because the emotions depicted are so honest and direct that they eventually becomes overwhelming. Many directors could have made The Fly into a great monster flick. Very few of them could have found the insight to turn it into a thoroughly satisfying romantic tragedy.
Right from the beginning – a credits sequence which is remarkably similar to that in Straw Dogs - Cronenberg is in absolute command of his material. He moves away from the plot of the original story, keeping only the basic concept, and avoids the excess of camp which plagued the original 1950s film. The married couple is abandoned and, instead, we get Seth Brundle (Goldblum), a brilliant physicist who has is on the verge of mastering teleportation, and Veronica (Davis), a journalist looking for a scoop and recently separated from her editor, Stathis Borans (Getz). The two become lovers and all seems well until, in a moment of drunken jealousy, Seth goes through the teleportation machine – although, as he later discovers, he was accompanied on his voyage by a fly. Gradually, Seth begins to change, the end product being a fusion of human and insect.
The central Cronenbergian obsession – breaking the Cartesian divide between body and mind – is present here of course. In metaphorical terms, Seth’s intellectual ambitions lead inexorably to the destruction of his body. To take it literally, Seth’s mind changes first – leading to what amounts to an apocalyptic sugar-rush - and the body then changes to catch up. The two are inexorably, even hopelessly, linked. The idea of the flesh as being exquisitely vulnerable to decay and corruption is also a familiar theme. But there’s a key development in the director’s movies here. In terms of Cronenberg’s work up to 1986, The Fly could probably not have been made had he not already directed The Dead Zone. Although there are strong emotional elements in some of the director’s other films, notably his cri-de-couer against child neglection and the pain of divorce The Brood, it was only with The Dead Zone that he discovered himself able to tell a strong character story with only a residual need for special effects. This put a huge load on the central figure of Johnny Smith, beautifully played by Christopher Walken, and Cronenberg revealed two loves; one of romantic tragedy and, perhaps more surprisingly, one of the power of actors to propel a film forwards and implicate the audience in their emotional journey. The Fly brings back the special effects of course, but they are only placed centre-stage as an essential part of a very strong, character-based narrative which engages and moves the audience. In combining the two, Cronenberg has virtually created a new genre – the romantic gore movie. His future films would virtually eradicate special effects as Cronenberg relaxed his grip on physical horror and began to delve deeply into the souls of his characters; a process which led to the extraordinarily moving Dead Ringers, the complex, troublingCrash and the expressionist nightmare of Spider.
Mention of the special effects leads one to the most controversial area of the film, one which disgusted certain critics back in 1986 to the point where they were unable to get past it – the transformation of Jeff Goldblum into Brundlefly, the union of fly and man. Reading their reviews – and this even applies to usually perceptive critics such as Pauline Kael – is a bit like looking back to pieces which damned John Carpenter’s The Thing as unwatchably repellent. They seem to consider that a film which has an honest and pure vision of the vulnerability of flesh is somehow unacceptable. I find this a little baffling. Yes, the effects are strong stuff – and a little stronger than mainstream audiences were used to – but they are surely no more disgusting than the stream of bloody killings in the average slasher flick or the casual carnage initiated by John Rambo. In a sense, the effects are slightly anaesthetised through Goldblum’s engaging and funny performance – he makes us aware of the human being beneath them, partly through his body language and partly through his constant stream of chatter during which he tells us exactly what he’s going through. The make-up itself is a staggering achievement, co-ordinated by Chris Walas, and our awareness of his artistry would slightly remove us from the horror were it not for the power of the acting and the intensity of the direction.
But none of this technical brilliance would matter a damn if we didn’t care about the central characters and in many respects, the casting is the reason for the film’s effectiveness. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis were partners in real life while making the film and their obvious chemistry makes them a great screwball comedy team during the first half and entirely believable tragic lovers during the second. Geena Davis is fast and witty, a 1986 version of one of those gleefully independent, professional women played by Rosalind Russell or Barbara Stanwyck during the 1940s. The sequence when she teasingly removes her stocking is one of the most erotic moments on film and Davis knows how to make sexiness funny. Her disappearance from our screens in the past few years means that we’ve lost a potentially great comedienne, even if most directors (and particularly her hubby Renny Harlin) didn’t know how to use her.
As for Goldblum, this is his best performance because his customary strangeness – that quality of suggesting that he didn’t quite register what you said but is replying anyway – is made an integral part of the character. He is extraordinarily likeable at the beginning of the film and when he begins to get his fly-induced super-strength, we share his exhilaration. Goldblum is an eminently verbal actor and he revels in the lengthy diatribes during which Brundle accuses his love of a ‘fear of the flesh’ (a phrase which may well become Cronenberg’s epitaph). He also brings conviction to an idea which could, in other hands, have become ludicrous – Brundle’s obsessive desire to document every stage in his deterioration. His presence is so powerful that we seem to see him even when Brundlefly has lost his human identity – the ovular, opaque and pleading eyes which look longingly at the shotgun in the final scene seem to belong to him.
Upon release, many commentators complacently described the film as ‘a metaphor for AIDS’. In some respects, this is understandable but Cronenberg’s refusal to accept something so specific is worthy of respect. The Fly is not a film linked to any one epidemic or any one historical period. Yes, in some respects it is a film about AIDS. But it’s also about cancer and Alzheimers and any other disease in which you have to watch a loved one slowly change from the person you knew. In fact, it could be seen as simply being about what happens to us during the ageing process, the one natural disease from which none of us are immune. What gives the film its immense power to move and disturb is largely the knowledge that Brundle’s tragedy is a metaphor for what happens to all of us. The unbearable sadness comes from our own memories of watching a loved one suffer, perhaps giving us the awful dilemma faced by Veronica in the film – one which most of us would not have the opportunity or courage to tackle so directly. Yet what lingers after the film is over is, paradoxically, not the blood and gore. It’s an overwhelming sense of love. Correctly, Cronenberg – despite testing some other endings –realised that the film has to end when the relationship between Seth and Veronica ends. Although the third figure of Stathis Borans is intriguing and well played by John Getz, he doesn’t take a hold on our affections. Essentially, this remains a two character piece.
In some respects, The Fly is Cronenberg’s most mainstream and commercial film, even more so than the somewhat misunderstood A History of Violence. It is certainly his biggest hit to date and will probably remain so. But he’s a director who, unusually, has never relinquished creative control and The Fly is as personal a film as any he has made. That it happened to touch a nerve at the box office is more serendipity than design. It helps that it’s such an emotionally rich film, the pain so directly presented that it is likely to make even the most hardened viewer shed a few tears. By the end, we’ve been through a completely satisfying emotional journey in the hands of one of the finest directors in the world. During the commentary, Cronenberg describes the baboon who appears in the film as “scary but beautiful”. A more apt brief definition of Cronenberg’s cinema would be hard to find.
This new 2-disc Special Edition of The Fly is the stuff of a Cronenberg fan’s wet dream. Even the excellent Criterion editions of Naked Lunch and Videodrome weren’t packed quite as fully as this is. Add to this a good transfer and you have a disc which will satisfy even the most demanding Cronenberg fan.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It looks excellent. There is loads of detail throughout, the colours (often deliberately muted) look beautiful and the contrast is just right. I didn’t notice any serious flaws apart from a little bit of print wear and tear in places – no artifacting problems or excessive grain. This transfer does the film proud and looks, to my eyes at any rate, more impressive than the transfer found on the old release of the ‘double bill’ with The Fly 2.
There are two English soundtracks, one in Dolby DTS 5.1 Surround and one in Dolby Digital 5.1. Both are very good, although the remix from Stereo leads to a predominance of front channel sound. No complaints from me about this – it sounds more natural – and the balance of sound is exactly right with the dialogue allowed breathing room above the sound effects and Howard Shore’s wonderfully operatic score. If I had to choose, the DTS slightly shades the DD5.1 in terms of atmosphere but its a very close call. Also present are tracks in Spanish and French.
The extras begin on the first disc with a commentary from David Cronenberg. Fans of his movies will know by now that Mr Cronenberg is one of the best commentators in the business and this track is just as good as might have been hoped. He speaks quite slowly and very intensely but over the course of the film he reveals an enormous amount about his working methods and the way in which his usual themes are worked into the film. He expresses great affection for the cast and lavishes praise on the special effects team. There are some typically deadpan jokes too. If you like laugh-a-minute team commentaries then this won’t be to your taste. Anyone else should find this immensely satisfying.
The second disc is stuffed to the gills with interesting material. It begins with two documentaries. The first is an enjoyable 12 minute tour of the Bob Burns Collection of design concepts and effects from the film. The second is more substantial, comprising a making-of documentary, divided into three parts and running for two and a quarter hours in its normal state and two and three quarter hours if you choose the ‘enhanced’ mode which allows you to use the angle button to access extra material (some of which is very interesting). You can also choose to view this extra material separately. The documentary is riveting with very frank contributions from writer Chuck Pogue and producer Stuart Cornfield and funny ones from Jeff Goldblum, John Getz and Geena Davis. The only thing to mar this piece is the lack of any non-archive comments from Cronenberg – who felt that he had said his piece in the commentary and didn’t wish to say any more. However, apart from this, I can’t imagine how this could be better and fans will be in insect-heaven when they get a lengthy discussion on the famous monkey-cat scene.
This scene – which was legendary for so long that seeing it is a bit of an anti-climax – also features in full in the deleted scenes section. There are three deleted scenes – the second interview, the monkey-cat, and the butterfly baby – two extended ones and the script for another one during which Brundlefly attacks an itinerant. These are presented in as good a form as possible, the best being the reel of the monkey-cat which was finished and only cut after a preview. In the case of this scene, an opportunity is given to look at the script and storyboards before watching the full 6’58” reel.
“Written Works” contains the full short story by George Langelaan – not particularly good but interesting, especially when compared to Cronenberg’s film – and the original screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue, which is very similar in themes and structure but different in character and dialogue. This is evident when you read Cronenberg’s rewrite which is also included. Also present are scans of two magazine articles, one from American Cinematographer and one from Cinefex.
“Film Tests” contains a variety of test scenes including the opening title treatments. These are fascinating for the insight they give into the complex creative process. “Promotional Materials” contains a featurette and Cronenberg profile from 1986, two trailers and three TV spots for The Fly, two trailers for the awful sequel and trailers for the 1950s version and its sequel. Finally, the Stills Gallery is divided into four sections – Publicity, Behind the Scenes, Concept Art and Effects – and contains a wide variety of good quality images.
The film is subtitled in English and Spanish. Sadly, none of the extra features are subtitled and consequently I have taken a mark off the ten out of ten they would otherwise have received.
If you’re a Cronenberg fan, then you’ll already own this. If you’re a fan of SF-Horror, then you will also, no doubt, have snapped it up. Anyone who doesn’t fall into one of those categories should still get it for two simple reasons; firstly, it’s a great movie; and secondly, it is a very impressive DVD release.