Tuesday, June 14, 2011

THE FLY (1986)

David Cronenberg, 1986
Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz

In the late '80s, David Cronenberg made two of my favorite horror films that are at once deeply disturbing and profoundly explore the breakdown of personal identity, inside and out. Both films are, in a manner of speaking, remakes. The first film,
The Fly (1986), loosely based on the 1958 Kurt Neumann-Vincent Price sci-fi film, is essentially about the exploration and dissolution of purely physical, biological identity, extending from the individual to the entire species. The second film, Dead Ringers (1988), loosely based on the novel Twins, chronicles the breakdown of identity from the inside out, blurring the line of individual identity between a pair of identical twins. While Dead Ringers is one of my favorite films of all time, I have a firm belief that most Cronenberg films should be viewed as double features. So, if for some ungodly reason you haven't seen The Fly or Dead Ringers, watch them together.

In typical Cronenberg fashion, The Fly blurs the line between science fiction and horror, with some disgusting gore thrown in for good measure. Scientist Seth Brundle (Goldblum) has figured out how to teleport particles (namely monkeys!) between teleportation pods. He meets cute science journalist Veronica (Davis) and convinces her to witness and document his achievements. They quickly begin a romantic relationship and Brundle becomes more obsessed with teleportation than ever, as he figures out how to transport human flesh. Using himself as a test subject, his trial is a success, with one small catch: he accidentally let a fly into the transportation pod, which the computer has now morphed into his own DNA. He begins changing, day by day, into... key dramatic and sinister music... a HUMAN FLY! Yes, like the Cramps song.

It sounds ridiculous but, like John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, The Fly is one of those really good, effective, creepy films that transcends its subject matter. It's painful, tragic, and disgusting all at once. Brundle has no place in the world anymore and even though he's become a monster, it's devastating when he meets his end. You really feel sorry for both Seth and Veronica, though maybe more for Veronica, who is trapped between a rock and a hard place, or, actually, between her controlling, manipulative ex and her new lover who is becoming less human by the day. I'm always fascinated by Cronenberg's portrayal of the family unit, which usually includes some element of unfortunate monstrosity. In The Fly, Seth and Veronica truly care for one another. In many ways, they have an ideal relationship. They get along well, have a good sexual relationship and understand one another's careers. Their only real problem is that Seth is undergoing a profound, bizarre transformation that will forever change both of their lives. It doesn't help that Veronica becomes pregnant, completing their ambiguous, deformed family unit, and that she truly loves Seth and is reluctant to leave him regardless of his "condition."

I think The Fly is one of those movies that is difficult to explain, in part because it sounds completely ridiculous. Yes. A guy turns into a fly and it's totally gross. He also goes through the typical Cronenbergian journey of self-metamorphosis and identity breakdown, which Cronenberg can make powerful with almost any plot. The dissolution of the flesh and therefore of humanity and identity rages through The Fly. Seth is a character with a strong, somewhat egomaniacal identity that rather quickly unravels and disintegrates. Fundamental questions about the self, love, humanity cannot be answered in The Fly -- in fact, the film often plays devil's advocate to itself, affirming and then denying these questions central to our existence as humans. And that is ultimately what makes it such a powerful experience.

I'm reviewing the two-disc collector's edition, though if you get a chance, it's much more amazing on the big screen. It was also recently released in Blu-ray, so if you're one of those lucky bastards with a big, fancy TV, have fun grossing out your friends, neighbors and significant other. The special features are pretty nice and include some documentaries, deleted scenes, test footage, featurettes, Cronenberg's work on the script, etc.

On a side note, The Fly would also make an excellent double feature with the Ken Russell-William Hurt film Altered States. Another one of my favorites and another weird movie about the scientific exploration of humanity gone wrong, and with some romantic redemption in the conclusion.

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