Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky isn't afraid to dive into the plasma pool, so long as he has his favorite Hello Kitty bath towel.
"I'd like to become the first insect politician. You see, I'd like to, but…I'm afraid."—Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum)
David Cronenberg. Jeff Goldblum turning into a monster. Two-disc special edition from Fox. If that has not convinced you to buy this, then get comfortable. This is going to take a while…
Facts of the Case
It all starts, as these things always do, with the best of intentions. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), systems analyst and mad scientist, wants to cure his motion sickness and impress a pretty girl. Said pretty girl is Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), reporter for a popular science magazine and nobody's fool. So Brundle shows off his latest invention, "telepods" capable of disassembling matter at one end and reintegrating it at the other.
But the computer that runs the telepods takes its job a little too seriously, and when Brundle tries teleporting himself across the room with a lonely fly hitching a ride, he comes out the other end, well, no longer quite himself. Seth Brundle does not know it at first, but he is not Seth Brundle any more. He is Brundlefly, a new species. What is a Brundlefly? Can it be trusted? The answer is apparently very simple. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Bartok Industries Internal Memo. Re: Seth Brundle/Telepod Project. To: project oversight committee:
This file collects extant records regarding the project initiated by Seth Brundle and financed by Bartok Industries to develop teleportation technology. Project is now shut down due to feasibility concerns. Hopefully, this document will outline reasons why the project must be considered a success, even after its apparent disastrous results.
Document 1: Overview
There is a crucial jump cut late in David Cronenberg's The Fly. It is not clear whether this disjuncture is intentional. Veronica (Geena Davis) struggles with Seth Brundle—or, more accurately, Brundlefly—as he threatens her life. It is a standard horror-movie moment: the female imperiled. She reaches out and pulls off his jaw. Suddenly, the music cuts in, as if we are caught mid-cue. Brundlefly loses all his human features, splitting open to become a hideous monster. The audience is faced with a technological object: a special effect jarringly inserted into the narrative. Is it Seth Brundle? Is it Brundlefly? Is it makeup artist Chris Walas?
The jump cut reminds us that we are watching a movie, that the unspooling of the film is mimicking the site of a trauma. David Cronenberg's films are, of course, all about trauma. I could rattle off a list of examples here, but if you have seen two Cronenberg films, whatever they may be, you know what I am talking about. As I have noted elsewhere in my reviews here on DVD Verdict, Cronenberg's films are about more than simply trauma itself. In Aristotelian drama, the act of violence is cathartic: It purges us and returns us to wholeness. The act of violence becomes necessary to reunite the self (and, in the case of the violence of justice, society). The other is enclosed through the act of purgation (even if that other might be just bad feelings like fear and pity, as Aristotle defines catharsis), contained, or cast away. And this is the case in most of western literature.
Not so in the films of David Cronenberg. Violence is never cathartic, never satisfying. It never eliminates the possibility of an other and leads us to closure. The act of violence—the car crash, the surgical procedure, even the sexual act—in Cronenberg leads to transformation. This is the case in Cronenberg's most accessible and popular film, The Fly.
Remember, Seth Brundle is not becoming "a hundred-and-eighty-five-pound fly," as he jokingly remarks to Veronica. In fact, from the moment he steps out of that telepod, he is not Seth Brundle either. He is Brundlefly, a creature that thinks it is Seth Brundle and is becoming increasingly terrified by the notion that it is something no one has ever seen before. More on this shortly. First—a jump cut.
Document 2: Excerpts from Future Present: Ethics and/as Science Fiction (FDU Press, 2003)
The Fly begins with a face to face: a pitiful attempt at a pickup line by Seth Brundle. Brundle's is a weak body. He is prone to motion sickness; he wears identical clothes every day; he has (in his girlfriend Veronica's words) "the skin of a princess." This is the stable body, the safe-at-home body that never changes and is afraid of momentum. This is the body that is so turned inwards that it is not really a body at all, but pure mind: the brilliant, rational scientist. His project: design. He offers Veronica, a science reporter who works for Monolith Publishing, the opportunity to watch him, to place him under surveillance, and record his wondrous invention. He anticipates that this invention, a teleportation device which will free him from the unpredictability of travel outside the home, will "change the world as we know it."
We know this world. We have seen it, in 1958, in a motion picture called The Fly. Cronenberg's remake of the 1958 film begins with a face-to-face encounter. Beneath this is Cronenberg's own encounter with the original material, altered so much through the screenplay by himself and Charles Edward Pogue as to appear alien and unrecognizable. In the original version of The Fly, David Hedison plays Andre Delambre, a scientist who switches body parts with a fly. Which parts? His hand, through which he might grasp, and his head (face), through which he gazes and is gazed upon. He thus becomes a monster, an alien subject. His gaze is multiple, through prismatic eyes. He covers his head to keep his wife from seeing him, but must uncover himself, demonstrating his alienness, before she will accept that he is not her husband and consent to kill him (by crushing those alien appendages in a machine press).
It is the face which speaks. Delambre, robbed of the power of speech, must scrawl written notes to his wife, distancing himself further from her. It is only the tiny man-fly at the end, whom Vincent Price (as the scientist's brother) crushes with a rock, that can speak, who might tell the story of what really happened. But its voice must be silenced: it is the alien and cannot be allowed discourse with us.
Cronenberg shifts the focus of the story to the scientist himself: how does Seth Brundle, as the alien itself, deal with his changing body? Cronenberg remarks, "What fascinated me about the whole project was, how does this man deal with his disease: rationalize it, articulate it?" (Cronenberg on Cronenberg 124)
Disease becomes transformative, undermining the stable Self and making the body something other. In Cronenberg's The Fly, Seth Brundle understands this alterity as "the poetry of steak." Unable to make his teleportation machine operate correctly (it has a tendency to turn test subjects inside out), Brundle comes to realize that his scientific conception of genetics is lacking something. He is too bound by traditional Law (the rationality of conventional biomedicine) and must "understand the Flesh." The Flesh is the absolute alterity of the Body, the irrational, the realm of possibility. "The Flesh makes you crazy," he tells Veronica. In order for his telepods to work, Brundle must program the computers to account for the Law of Chance, the unpredictability of the Flesh.
The success of his invention makes Brundle overeager with anticipation. Drunk and frustrated over his belief that Veronica has returned to her ex-lover (and editor) Stathis Borans (John Getz), he turns on her video camera (this legacy must be recorded for posterity, after all), activates the telepods and climbs inside, not noticing a tiny fly which has chanced into the scene.
Brundle emerges from the telepod stronger, faster, more energized. He believes he has become more masculine, wondering if this was "the real me" all along. Veronica is troubled and afraid, but Brundle dismisses her fears, asserting that she only knows "society's version of the Flesh."
But he quickly begins to degenerate. Strange hairs grow on his body. He begins to look and smell offensive. Veronica abandons him to his fate. Brundle runs a computer analysis of his transportation and discovers that he has merged with the fly. From the time of teleportation, he has no longer been Seth Brundle. He is an organism alien to himself, uncertain of his own biology or destiny.
Weeks pass, and Brundle finally contacts Veronica. He has become sick. Parts of him fall off, even as he is speaking to her. He can no longer eat ordinary food, but must vomit stomach acid on it, liquefy it, and suck it back up. Calling himself "Brundlefly" and speaking in the third person, he records all this on videotape, much to the horror of Veronica and Borans. He now knows the purpose of the disease, as if it has its own plans and intentions: it does not want to kill him; "it wants to turn me into something else."
Document 3: Cronenberg's Crowd Pleaser
Still, for all this complexity, The Fly works for an audience because we care about the characters. Seth Brundle is not a stereotypical mad scientist. He is funny, vulnerable, and looks pretty good with his shirt off. His growing romance with Veronica feels authentic, and not because Goldblum and Davis were dating in real life. (After all, how many real-life couples display no screen chemistry?) Even the ostensible villain of the film, Stathis Borans, is complex, an egocentric manipulator whose bluster really hides an insecure need to impress Veronica, even if misogynistic bile is the only party trick he knows.
All of this moves David Cronenberg from the gruesome head trips of his previous films into new territory: character-driven horror. While there were hints at emotional weight in The Brood and The Dead Zone, the films still had a clinical precision that kept us at a distance. We cringe at The Fly less because of its gore (which there is plenty of) than the fact that people—believable people—suffer. Empathy was a new idea for Cronenberg's films back in 1986, and since then, he has elaborated on this with increasing strength and maturity.
The Fly stands then as David Cronenberg's crowd pleaser, a film that satisfies his desire to explore the philosophical terrain of the body while remaining anchored by sympathetic and well-drawn characters. Add to this the budget of a major studio for top-notch visual effects (especially the Oscar-winning makeup of Chris Walas). The Fly is the complete package, the best horror film of the 1980s.
Document 4: The Other Disc
As I have said many times, in a perfect world, every David Cronenberg film would get the deluxe treatment. In the real world, it has only been in the last couple of years that his body of work has started to get some respect by studios. Fox previously treated The Fly, in spite of its growing critical stature, as just another catalog title. The worst indignity: the last DVD release was a flipper disc with the underachieving sequel, The Fly 2. I only bought it because I had worn out my VHS copy showing Cronenberg's film in popular culture courses.
The new twentieth-anniversary collector's edition seeks to rectify the mistakes of the past. Oddly, the film transfer seems pretty much the same as it was on the flipper-disc version, which was pretty good to begin with. The only advance in the audio quality is the addition of a DTS track. But where Fox shines is in the addition of new extras spread over two discs. David Cronenberg, adept and articulate as usual, turns in a strong commentary track in which he relates stories about the production (he takes great amusement in the amorous baboon) and shows how deeply he understands the thematic complexity of his own work. He describes the film's tone as "operatic" and, upon seeing The Fly for the first time in nearly two decades, finds his work "disturbing and emotional." And how right he is.
Cronenberg is notably absent for the feature-length documentary on Disc Two, Fear of the Flesh. Clocking in at two and a quarter hours (plus an additional half hour of interviews, available separately or accessible via branching from the main feature), Fear of the Flesh intends to be a comprehensive chronicle of the production. We begin with Charles Edward Pogue (the film's ostensible screenwriter, although very little of his draft remains in the finished film) and producer Stuart Cornfeld, brought together by Fox in order to remake the 1958 The Fly (which we see in a cleverly condensed version). We follow the tangled history of the project, as one director left and Cronenberg came aboard (after his planned version of Total Recall fell through) and rewrote the script, choosing to focus on a developing relationship between the romantic leads. Many of Cronenberg's supporting team—cinematographer Mark Irwin, production designer Carol Spier—detail the production, along with Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, and John Getz.
The middle section of the documentary offers deleted footage and behind-the-scenes material on the practical effects work by Chris Walas and crew. Remember, these were the days before computer graphics, so all the makeup and puppet work was done by hand (apart from one motion control shot that prefigured Dead Ringers). If you want a sense of how thorough this documentary tries to be, consider that director David Prior spends twenty minutes detailing the "spacebug" effects at the film's climax. Even without the presence of David Cronenberg (who, after all, got the whole commentary track to himself), there is a lot of stuff here.
But Fox continues to pack on the goodies. Chris Walas hosts a featurette in which he gives us a tour of many of the surviving props from the film. Some special effects film tests are skillfully edited together with music and split-screens—and you get to see Cronenberg climbing the walls wearing antennae and insect wings! Several deleted scenes are included, both in the documentary and separately, including the notorious "monkey-cat" sequence cut after test screenings. It was better left out: the puppet work is unconvincing, and the scene makes Brundle too much of a brute, given that his emotional state by this point in the film is one of panic mixed with desperation. We also get a deleted ending (which everybody in the documentary seems glad to have lost), some extended footage, and a scripted sequence that was never filmed. Promotional materials, trailers (including one for the 1959 Return of the Fly, which has the son of David Hedison's character looking for the secrets of "transmigration"—I didn't know he was a Hindu!), and a great stills gallery of the cast and Cronenberg hamming it up for publicity photos.
The most unusual supplement, compared to the traditional slate of DVD extras, is a collection of texts related to the film. George Langelaan's original short story (which is very similar to the 1958 film, although Fox does not give us James Clavell's screenplay to that one), Charles Edward Pogue's draft of the remake (in which a married nebbish battles his greedy corporate masters and the insect inside him), and Cronenberg's rewrite are all included. Cronenberg's version is far superior to Pogue's, with better dialogue, more original characters, and a more daring choice in making Brundlefly an entirely new entity, rather than contextualizing the transformation as a battle of "man against insect." Some articles from Cinefex and American Cinematographer from back in 1986 give the first indications that The Fly was destined to be a breakthrough for the modern horror film.
To praise this film any more would smack of pandering. The Fly is scary, emotional, and intellectually rigorous. The film is accessible to audiences who could not give a damn who directed it, and for Cronenberg junkies, it neatly encapsulates his themes while piling on wit and action. Strong performances give this an emotional core that most horror films, interested only in the voyeuristic pleasure of watching characters suffer from a distance, cannot match. And Fox's two-disc edition gives you everything you could want in terms of extra content. For a film about science gone awry, The Fly: Collector's Edition is one film with perfect chemistry.
David Cronenberg and Fox are both released with the blessings of the court. This court appoints Brundlefly as insect ambassador to the U.N. Try not to spit corrosive vomit-drop on any of the other delegates, okay?
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director David Cronenberg
Review content copyright © 2005 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.