The original The Fly (1958), directed by Kurt Neumann and starring Vincent Price, is a fairly routine sci-fi programmer with one or two inspired moments. Years later, when David Cronenberg found Charles Edward Pogue's updated screenplay, he saw that there were several ways to rethink and improve upon the original story (written by George Langelaan) and to include his own favorite themes. Moreover, it was a way to deal with one of Cronenberg's own personal problems: motion sickness. In the new film, inventor Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum -- who deserved, but did not receive, an Oscar nomination) spends all his time working on teleportation pods so that he'll never have to ride in a car ever again. It was also Cronenberg's most seamless exploration of the changing of the human body via the introduction of outside elements, a theme he has very recently attempted to expand and deepen with Spider (2002) and his gangster films A History of Violence (2005) and the new Eastern Promises.

The Fly (1986) opens at a kind of science convention where inventors gather to discuss (or hint at) their latest findings. A sexy reporter, Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), is there, hunting for a story. Somehow Seth's kooky enthusiasm intrigues her and she agrees to accompany him back to his lab to see his work. He gives her a cappuccino (from a real cappuccino machine with the eagle on top), and teleports her scarf across the room using two "pods." The pods, of course, are designed to look like huge, metallic beehives or cocoons. Seth decides he likes Veronica, but doesn't want her to write an article about his as-yet-unfinished invention, so he persuades her to hang around and work on a book instead. Together they work on the final hurdle: sending living tissue safely through the pods. In one horrific scene a lab monkey gets turned inside out. In another intriguing sequence, he teleports two slices of steak. The steak looks the same, but the teleported piece tastes wrong; it's the first time Cronenberg really dealt with food and the way the human body perceives and absorbs it. (Eastern Promises goes a little into this as well.)

It's only through his budding sexual affair with Veronica that Seth begins to get a sense of flesh. He realizes that he has to program the computer to get the poetry and desire of flesh, rather than just its basic compound. After a fight with her and after a good deal of booze, he tests the teleporter on himself, little realizing that a fly has entered the pod with him. The computer has not been told what to do in this instance, and so splices the two creatures together. At first Seth feels great, but then begins to deteriorate, slowly morphing into a large, human fly. (In the original, the inventor steps out of the pod with a fly head and arm -- and that's it.) Cronenberg focuses on the science of Seth's transformation, and the way he comes to terms with his body's new co-habitant. He also focuses on Veronica's reaction to her new boyfriend.

In this vein, Cronenberg introduces a great third character, Stathis Borans (John Getz), Veronica's editor with whom she has recently ended an affair. Normally, this character would be the third wheel in the love triangle, a cuckold. And indeed, Cronenberg sets him up as just that: when Veronica comes home and finds him showering in her apartment, he says, "I just happened to be in the neighborhood... felt a bit scummy." But when the horror elevates to a point of no return, Stathis actually steps up and becomes something of a hero. Of course, the real story involves pairs: Seth and Veronica and then Seth and the fly. There can be only two, as there are two pods. In essence, Seth was fine when he was single, but never really alive. ("Somehow I get the feeling you don't get out much," Veronica says.) By opening himself up physically and emotionally, he gains and loses everything; the agony goes hand-in-hand with the ecstasy. (In the 1980s, many writers saw the movie as a parable for AIDS.)

The entire look of the movie is designed around the metallic/organic pods, with the lengths of cords and cables connecting the two, like veins and intestines lying all around the floor. Seth's big loft apartment is almost like a giant chest cavity, opened up and experimented upon. I always associate the movie with the color green, which can be an organic, earth-tone color, but also an unnatural, alien-type color (also used effectively in Re-Animator a year earlier). Perhaps the makeup effects in the film's final section don't quite hold up, and the shocker ending may be a bit calculated, but the personal vision behind the film puts it miles ahead of the bargain matinee nature of the original.

It was a major breakthrough film for Cronenberg, earning big box office and rave reviews; Gene Siskel and several other critics included it on their lists of the year's ten best films. It even won an Oscar (Best Makeup). It's also arguably the greatest remake the cinema has ever produced. Cronenberg has since become my favorite living filmmaker, and though he has perhaps made better films, in terms of sheer pleasure, The Fly remains one of my personal favorites. I saw it in a theater during a perfect Labor Day weekend in 1986, the day after I saw Stand by Me, and I'll always remember it fondly. It definitely gave me the creeps, but the sheer precision of its logic and design is even more compelling: so perfect it's scary.

categories Features, Cinematical