Monday, August 15, 2011
The Insect Who Dreamt He Was a Man
By Damian Arlyn
In a time when films of all shapes and sizes are being remade, re-imagined or rebooted, it's very easy to get jaded and cynical about Hollywood's complete lack of originality. Fortunately, once in a while a movie comes along that restores our faith in the potential of the filmmaking industry to produce genuine art…even when it's a remake. David Cronenberg's The Fly is one of those movies. Based on the 1958 B-movie that starred Vincent Price, it tells the frightening story of a brilliant scientist who develops a way to teleport matter through space but when he tests the machine out on himself ends up making a tiny mistake with horrifyingly tragic consequences. A common housefly makes its way into the pod with him resulting in his biology being fused with that of the insect on a genetic-level. Slowly and very painfully he watches himself transform into a bizarre, monstrous creature with both bug-like and human-like characteristics. Despite its decidedly sci-fi/horror trappings, it is an incredibly intimate story that has lost none of its emotional power in the 25 years since its release (although its gore, in our "post-torture porn" culture, has lot a little bit of its potency). It is unequivocally one of the best movie remakes ever and arguably Cronenberg's best film.
One of the most surprising elements of The Fly (especially considering its big-budget genre picture status) is its relative dearth of characters: basically three. The first is the scientist, Seth Brundle, who invents the telepods. He's played by Jeff Goldblum in a quirky, eccentric and yet still remarkably vulnerable and sympathetic fashion. It was the first of this kind of role for Goldblum (though he played variations on it in both Independence Day and the Jurassic Park movies). His soulful performance helps carry the film through many of its more gruesome segments. The reporter who discovers Brundle's invention is played by Geena Davis (the actress with whom Goldblum actually had a relationship in real life at the time of filming). Her performance is as heartbreaking as Goldblum's since she is forced to sit idly by and watch in horror as the man she loves deteriorates before her very eyes. The third corner of the "love triangle" (and probably the most under-appreciated actor in the film) is Davis' editor and former boyfriend Stathis Borans, played by John Getz. Though he starts the film out as an almost comically villainous creep (selfish, jealous, obnoxious, etc), it's interesting to see him undergo his own gradual metamorphosis (of sorts) over the course of the film. As the hero becomes more monstrous, the "monster" becomes more heroic, eventually saving Veronica's life in the end…though not without suffering some major injuries in the process.
Though he was not the original director tied to the project (Cronenberg was working on adapting Total Recall for Dino de Laurentiis at the time), David Cronenberg was the perfect filmmaker for The Fly. When a family tragedy made the original director attached to The Fly unavailable and the remake's producers learned that Cronenberg and De Laurentiis had parted ways on Total Recall, they approached Cronenberg. His independent background helped direct the film's focus away from the spectacular special effects and Oscar-winning make-up (courtesy of Gremlins designer Chris Walas) and toward the characters. He understood that the more the audiences cared about the people to whom these grotesque things were happening, the more sad and suspenseful the incredible events depicted would be. His re-conceptualization of the transformation the protagonist undergoes (a far cry from the human scientist with the massive fly's head in the '58 original) also gave him an opportunity to work with one of his favorite themes: namely, the human body and our complex relationship with it. In the '80s, with the AIDS epidemic claiming millions of lives and scaring millions more, The Fly's portrayal of a helpless victim of his own body's gradual malfunction and breakdown really hit home. Apparently Cronenberg never intended the metaphor to be quite so pertinent to the moment but instead intended it to be more universal and timeless: namely, the decline of health suffered by all humans beings through the aging process. As with many of his other films (such as Scanners and Videodrome), Cronenberg gets the opportunity to shock us with lots of shots of sticky, gooey viscera that is both repugnant and familiar to us. The flesh, as Ronnie points out within the film itself, makes us crazy.
The Fly received positive reviews and was a huge commercial hit when it came out in '86 despite the fact that many patrons were completely grossed out by the graphic content. A vastly inferior sequel (this one directed by Chris Walas) was released in 1989 and an opera written by the film's composer, and frequent Conenberg collaborator, Howard Shore premiered in 2008. Despite these sequels and spin-offs, nothing has managed to duplicate the artistic and financial success of the '86 film. The Fly became an indelible part of pop culture and justifiably so. Very few other remakes not only match the quality of their source of inspiration but actually surpass them, though it has been known to happen (Soderbergh's Ocean's 11 and the Coens' True Grit). Although the high-pitched cries of "Help me! Help me!" heard in the '58 original are still referenced/parodied occasionally today, David Cronenberg's The Fly has made the rare achievement of supplanting its predecessor as the definitive incarnation of that particular story.
I suspect even Kafka himself would've been jealous.