Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Fly (1986)

So now I’m ready to start the third and final volume of the Fox 75th Anniversary box set, covering the years 1986-2010, and I notice the first title is 1987’s Raising Arizona. Sure, a good choice, but that means they completely skipped 1986. I can understand no Aliens – according to their unofficial ground rules only one film per franchise – and smaller titles like Big Trouble In Little China and Lucas just don’t merit inclusion, cult status notwithstanding. But wait, where’s The Fly? Now there’s a bona fide classic, and so I decided to include it in my blog to make up for Fox’s oversight.

Yes, I know: Here we go again! Sorry, I know I was going to hang it up after bridging the 80-85 gap but I can’t help it; now I’m on roll. And besides, I can’t bear to partake in a retrospective series with such glaring omissions. If I’m gonna devote this much time to something, it’d better be complete. If it’s not, I’m making it so.

The Fly was part of Fox’s Sumner of ’86 lineup, in which they clearly focused on science fiction as its primary genre. (I can still remember the double-page ad for it in Starlog magazine.) In addition to the aforementioned Aliens, we also got Spacecamp, The Manhattan Project and Big Trouble in Little China. And then, dumped in late-August, was The Fly, cult-horror director David Cronenberg’s second studio film, after proving his mainstream mettle with the successful, subdued The Dead Zone.

The Dead Zone so was subdued, in fact, that many wondered if Cronenberg, noted for his extreme gore in the context of bio-horror, had given up his blood ad guts altogether. And indeed, he does show great restraint in The Fly’s first act. But once Jeff Goldbloom begins his metamorphosis, look out!

Yet that restraint is also what gives the film its dramatic power. Cloaked in the guise of sci-fi, Goldbloom’s Seth Brundle could easily be suffering from any degenerative disease, like cancer or, as many liked to speculate as it was ’86, AIDS. And so building up his character as a normal human who just so happens to get his genes spliced with those of a housefly is what allows us a profound empathy for the man – impossible to take were it not for he fantastical element of the fly (although the film, particularly the ending, is pretty heart-wrenching as it is).

But it al starts out pretty innocuous. Seth Brundle’s teleportation machine could be the invention that “changes the world as we know it,” but journalist Veronica (Geena Davis), wants the scoop right away. Seth works out an arrangement: document him working on the project – with all its ups and downs – culminating with the ultimate goal: teleportation of a human. She agrees, even if her magazine boss/ex-boyfriend (John Getz) has a few reservations, but so far the downs outweigh the ups; sure, inanimate objects are no problem, but somehow the computer can’t understand life. Seth does a bit of reprogramming, and it seems to work on a baboon, and then he uses it on himself, with ostensible success. But we know something he doesn’t: there was a fly in the teleporter with him. That can’t be good.

Before long, Brundle starts developing characteristics of a fly: addiction to sugar, sexual stamina, ability to crawl walls and, much to the regret of an arm-wrestling challenger, superhuman strength. When things get really hairy, literally, Veronica realizes she’s pregnant with Seth’s child, and wants an abortion – pronto – but the now-mostly-fly scientist has other plans. He needs her to teleport with so that his human genes can be fused with those of two other humans (Ronnie and child). She obviously wants no part of such a desperate act, but he abducts her and puts her in the pod, only to be stopped by Getz (but not before getting his hand and foot melted off by fly vomit). Brundle is now fully fly, but his attempts at recovery are catastrophically futile, resulting in his tragic fusion with the teleporter itself. Veronica attempts to shoot and kill him but can’t – only after Brundle gesturing for her to do it can she bring herself to pull the trigger.

I first saw The Fly at the Towne 16 movie theater at the Shore Mall. I think I saw it opening weekend – not surprising since I was with my friend at the time, a cinematic omnivore who saw everything immediately upon release. We both loved it – which said something as we both fancied ourselves discriminating critics. But  I was definitely drawn to the science aspect of the film – I loved the notion of a scientist working by himself, using a cool-looking computer, conducting this groundbreaking experiment that could change the world. The whole fly thing? Sad, but just how it goes, right?

Now, seeing it 30 years later, I responded more to the tragic love story aspects of it. I have a greater attraction to Geena Davis now (what a smoking babe; how did I miss that before?), and I got totally into their relationship. But now I got more emotional when their love deteriorated on account of his deterioration, and jut found the whole thing sad and tragic.

And I think that’s really what the film is all about. Sure it’s sci-fi/horror by genre, but beyond the latex and special effects, it really tears your heart out. That’s not only due to the deliberate, straightforward yet dramatic direction, but also to the lead performances of Davis and Goldbloom, an offbeat looking pair just right for this kind of techno-geek story, but skilled enough as actors to give it an emotionally broad scope.

But Cronenberg still knows he has to deliver the horror goods at he end of the picture, in other words, give us a full-bodied fly. Yeah, you can have Goldbloom with goop on his face for the better part of an hour, but we’ll riot the screen if we don’t see that fly. And show us the fly her does…. and then some.

A simple yet intensely moving picture. This is what real horror should be all about.

Rating:  ****

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