Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cronenberg in Context: The Fly (1986)

Giant oil drums of ink have already been spilled in tribute to The Fly, David Cronenberg's most commercially and critically successful film, and since it is yet another of his works that I currently don't have a copy of (Damn you, '06 Chaska DVD thieves!) I'll do little here but scratch the surface.

Originally a short story published in Playboy, The Fly was quickly adapted into a 1958 Vincent Price film, and has since spiraled outward into a massive, loosely connected franchise. As of 2009 there have been two sequels, one remake (which we are discussing today), one sequel to said remake, an operatic adaptation of the remake, a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror segment, and a possible remake of the remake. (That is a lot of houseflies getting trapped in teleportation devices; perhaps these scientists need to keep their labs tidier.)
For Cronenberg's career, the film was a watershed moment in several ways. As mentioned above, it ended up being his biggest hit by a wide margin, becoming the world's first (and probably only) mainstream body-horror film. The academy award winning makeup effects involved in the tragic hero's gruesome metamorphosis (often described a brutal metaphor for the aging process) horrified and resonated with audiences, while the doomed romance and melodramatic love triangle at the heart of the film gave it an emotional heft rarely found in horror or sci-fi. In fact, the quality of Cronenberg's writing and directing of actors in The Fly signals the beginning of the end for those of us who have mixed feelings about the auteur's transformation into a high caliber, genre-free filmmaker. With the notable exception of eXistenZ, all of his post-Fly movies have drifted away from gross out effects and outlandish premises and toward straight, character driven thrillers. They're still as violent and disturbing for the most part, but the body-horror themes have been internalized by the various tortured, psychologically damaged protagonists.

If Cronenberg's films are looked at as a ven-diagram or continuum between his fleshy, venereal horror shows and dark, cerebral character studies, The Fly will always end up at dead center. The perfect balance of gore and character makes it his most perfect film, even if it only ends up as #4 on my personal list of favorites. (In case you're wondering, it goes: Videodrome, Dead Ringers, eXistenZ, The Fly.)

More Reasons The Fly is Awesome:

Pacing: Cronenberg's films can never be criticized for being overlong. Unlike many of the self indulgent filmmakers currently pumping out 3+ hour epics, he has skills with the editing blade to rival even pre-Gladiator Ridley Scott. The Fly begins practically in media res, with Jeff Goldblum and Gena Davis hitting it off at a party before going back to his place for a telepod demonstration. No time is wasted setting the characters up beforehand, and every scene has a clear purpose. (It helps that their are no added subplots beyond Goldblum's transformation and the central romance.) In fact, considering the quality of the writing, acting, and special effects, it could even be argued that the film is too short.

Stathis Borans: Played by the chronically underemployed John Getz of Blood Simple 'fame,' Stathis is a sleazy, '80s corporate villain type and the third prong in the film's love triangle. With a bushy rapist beard and hair as slick as his demeanor, the dude spends 75% of the movie radiating intense douchebag vibes. However, thanks to Getz's performance, there are subtle hints of vulnerability sandwiched between his smug cigar chomping and pompous theatrics. By the third act, the audience can almost believe that his despondent ex-girlfriend would look to him for help in her time of need. He even gets to save the day in the end, though at a gruesome personal cost.

It's amazing how much sympathy (read: any whatsoever) the film manages to find for such an unlikable character. Despite limited screen time in a relatively short film, he goes from 1980s cinema archetype to three dimensional character. In the end, he's arguably the film's most interesting character. Cronenberg even admits as such in the DVD commentary track (recommended BTW), and laments his choice to not develop him further. (Perhaps the 2007 opera version rectified this.)

Music: Yet another reason it isn't surprising that there is a Fly opera; the Howard Shore composed score can only be described with hyperbolic language like 'epic' and 'intense.' It's heavy, orchestral, and manages to highlight the characters' intense, borderline melodramatic emotional arcs without sending the whole ordeal passed that thin, hazy line separating good drama from "over the top." Here's the main theme:

No Neo-Luddism: Unlike most 'science gone wrong' movies (including the original 1958 film), The Fly does not blame science itself for the protagonist's fateful predicament. He gets drunk and teleports himself without proper precautions after his girlfriend disappears on him for the evening to meet with her ex-boyfriend. No one tries to make a case that the telepods are too dangerous or that he tried to play god; emotion and strong drink simply made him sloppy.

Buff Jeff Goldblum in tiny underwear: I mean... if you're in to that sort of thing... which I'm not... not that there is anything wrong with that.

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