David Cronenberg's 'The Fly,' A Triumphant Melding Of Character And Effects, Turns Twenty-Five

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Well, look at that: Brundlefly is twenty-five years old today. On August 15, 1986, David Cronenberg's The Fly was released by Twentieth-Century Fox. The film became Cronenberg's greatest success to date, and quickly established itself as an instant classic of practical effects thanks to the Oscar-winning work of Chris Walas. (Who would go on to direct the sequel.) The Fly also gave stars Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, who had met and begun dating while making Transylvania 6-5000, their first true breakout lead opportunities.

Those are all significant results of the film's release, but The Fly is a film worth revisiting and honoring for other reasons. It marks a real turning point in the career of David Cronenberg, and stands as one of the unassailable arguments for the idea of the film remake. And, in the cinematic culture of 2011, where the superhero is ascendant, some of you might join me in hoping that we might eventually cycle back around to a point where much weirder stories of transformation and the effects of power on the human body and psyche seem like viable commercial efforts.

The Fly happened thanks to Mel Brooks and Stuart Cornfeld. The latter is the same producer who, a few years earlier, brought David Lynch to the attention of the comedian and his company Brooksfilms. That introduction resulted in The Elephant Man. That film exists because of  the two producers, and the cooperation of Brooks and Cornfeld can't be overlooked when considering The Fly. They let Cronenberg do what he wanted with the material with no holds barred — no small consideration when working with the guy who made The Brood, Rabid, and Videodrome. (The last of those being a still-recent box-office dud for Universal.)

Cronenberg recounts "[Brooks] said 'I want you to go all the way. Let yourself go, and don't hold back.' There were no restraints. They were willing to lose that percentage of the audience that would have liked the love-interest stuff, but couldn't take the horror." That's a producer. We need more like of those; that sort of attitude is the reason we celebrate the efforts of someone like Scott Rudin, and why we get excited about enablers like Megan Ellison. (Whose track record, admittedly, is yet to really be proven, but here's hoping.)

David Cronenberg took the idea of the remake all the way. Stuart Cornfeld came to him with a script by Charles Edward Pogue that was already quite different from the 1959 version. Cronenberg, with Cornfeld as story editor, rewrote almost all of it. "There's one line of dialogue from Chuck's script that remains," explained the director, "but not one character." By taking the story and making it his, rather than wasting effort attempting to honor and/or placate some conception of the original, Cronenberg creating something elegant and significant.

I've realized I'm trucking along as if everyone knows the plot of the film, which for a 25-year old movie is a silly assumption to make. So: Seth Brundle (Goldblum) is a scientist who suffers from severe motion sickness. Naturally, he turns his innovative endeavors towards something that will make his life easier. Namely: teleportation. He meets journalist Veronica 'Ronnie' Quaife (Davis) at a party, and invites her to be the first to see his invention, the telepod, in action. But he's got a problem: the telepod doesn't deal well with living things. As Brundle works out the kinks with the pods, his relationship with Ronnie evolves. That relationship has some kinks to work out, too. In a fit of drunken jealousy, Brundle's first attempt to teleport a human — himself — goes wrong when a fly is caught in the system. From there, the real evolution begins, as Brundle becomes, in his own word, Brundlefly.

This version of The Fly is, as you'd expect from Cronenberg, far more body-conscious than the previous film version starring Vincent Price. While Videodrome was perhaps the most 'Cronenbergian' film the director had made to date, in The Fly his concerns would surface in very overt, almost mainstream manner, as scientist and soon-to-be fly creature Seth Brundle speaks directly about 'the flesh.' That preoccupation with flesh is central — a preoccupation, in other words, with the 'body as self' that becomes part of the expanded worldview and lifestyle Seth Brundle experiences as he discovers a life outside his mind.

I'm reminded here of one of my favorite scenes from any film, a small drunken monologue performed by Roman Polanski in The Tenant:

Tell me, at what precise moment does an individual stop being who he thinks he is? Cut off my arm, I say "me and my arm." You cut off my other arm, I say "me and my two arms." Take off...take...take out my stomach, my kidneys...assuming that were possible, and I say "me and my intestines"...in-tes-tinesss. You follow me? And now, if you cut off my head, would I say... "me and my... me and my head, or me and my body"? What right has my head have to call itself me?

The horror at the center of this story isn't as simple as a loss of humanity. It's the loss of control through our own endeavors. It's the idea that we can still be ourselves, in some central personal conception, but also be totally different. 'The flesh' is part of a key question: is it us, or are we it?

David Cronenberg might well say that there can be no division between flesh and self. Seth Brundle's physical change is reflected in his behavior, and his interactions with others. He's a scientist, and well aware of his physical change. Bu his conception of self is a continuum. In other words, without comparing himself to someone relatively unchanging, like Ronnie, he might not realize how much he's changed. The flesh changes, and the self changes with it, whether we know it or not.

The Fly resonates not only because it is gooey visceral horror, but because it is deeply tragic. The physical transformation of Seth Brundle is horrifying to behold. It is his lingering awareness, however, and in the final moments his full understanding and acceptance of his change, that renders it heartbreaking.

To shoehorn the film into the context of today, it's the other side of the superhero coin. What if that radioactive spider didn't turn Peter Parker into a force for good, but rather into something that could not live among people at all? Something that, without any others of its kind, might not be able to live, period? That's Brundlefly: Spider-man, Frankenstein and HAL 9000, all wrapped up in one.

Those elements make the film powerful, but Cronenberg's direction made it work. He keeps things very simple; the film clocks in at 90 minutes, and we don't even have to wait ten of those minutes before the film is really in gear. Even the opening credits contribute in an active manner, as the party where Brundle meets Ronnie is seen through an exaggerated insect-like vision mode that eventually resolves to a camera angle perched high up in fly-on-the-wall position over the party. It's a quiet movie, with Howard Shore's score reserved for specific moments.

Goldblum's work is wonderful — he's manic, off-kilter and (forgive me) bug-eyed in all the right ways. Reserved at first, then overtly physical. And Cronenberg's direction collaborates perfectly with the performance. He lets Ronnie be the powerful one at first; she's experienced in the journo and science world, while Brundle is the nerd who can barely talk to girls. But after he 'goes through' and is inadvertently merged with a fly, beginning his transformation to something new, she's physically minimized, as when wearing his oversized shirt in the scene where he starts to show off his physical skill. Cronenberg makes him more and more physically dominant as that transformation takes place. It's simple stuff, done in a fashion that could almost be called primitive, but there is nothing primitive about Cronenberg's understanding of how actors relate to one another within the frame.

It's worth noting that The Fly was the first film where David Cronenberg's sister Denise Cronenberg worked as the costume designer; she has done all of his films since. More significantly, The Fly was the final film Cronenberg would make with cinematographer Mark Irwin, with whom he'd collaborated beginning with the minor car racing film Fast Company in 1979. A year and a half after The Fly, when Cronenberg was prepping Dead Ringers, the film was pushed and Irwin took another job. Cronenberg hired Peter Suschitzky to shoot Dead Ringers, and the two have worked together ever since.

Those personnel milestones are part of what make The Fly a significant turning point in Cronenberg's career. But there's more to it than that. Four of his previous five movies (Fast Company, The Brood, Scanners and Videodrome) had been financed under a Canadian tax-shelter system. The Dead Zone, the final film before The Fly, was undertaken almost as antidote to Videodrome. Cronenberg once explained,

Videodrome was a very heavy experience. If you're used to comedy, The Dead Zone is a heavy picture. But if you're used to Videodrome, The Dead Zone is not. At that point I needed to do something based on somebody's else's work, as a relief.

The Dead Zone, and the long, frustrating and aborted attempt to make Total Recall that followed, became a sort of prologue to The Fly. Looking at the twenty-five year old film now, it stands out as the point where Cronenberg truly melded his interest in characters to a love for physical effects, and where he worked on a larger scale but was able to retain a full hold on the project. We could very well say that through The Fly, David Cronenberg evolved into a new, more complex filmmaker, and was able to retain exactly the control that Seth Brundle lost. Sounds like a triumph to me.

(All direct quotations from David Cronenberg come from pp.109-135 of the essential interview compilation Cronenberg on Cronenberg, edited by Chris Rodley. It's out of print, but available used on Amazon.)