The Fly (1986)

As strange as it may seem, there are a few Classic science fiction films I have not seen.

This was one of them.

Blame it on that final gruesome scene, a fragment of which I saw on cable TV while someone was flicking around the dial.  Or blame it on the disturbing storyline, which I was more or less familiar with.  Or blame it on David Cronenberg, who already had a reputation for icky body horror.

Although I’d also seen the beginning of the film, which has to be one of the best openings of any SF film ever made.

So I suppose that made it inevitable that I would see it sooner or later.  Although 33 years is definitely “later”.

It starts in the most amazingly low-key way, with Jeff Goldblum talking to a girl at a party and answering a question the audience never hears.  This is one of Jeff’s finest performances, as he gives Seth Brundle an impressive combination of awkwardness and nervousness with supreme confidence.

Which sounds contradictory, but it is the essence of Seth Brundle.  At least, until that fly gets into the picture.

He’s paired with his wife at the time, Geena Davis, and the two have considerable chemistry together.  Cronenberg, despite his frequently eccentric, Indie film stylings and predilection for icky bodily transformations, is content to do something very traditional here, and a lot of the early part of the film depends on these two and the way in which they play off each other in the scenes where they talk to each other with only minimal teleportation interference.  What keeps it all from descending into a meaningless gross out is that Seth is so human and sympathetic:  we keep hoping that there will be some way out for him, right up until the  grotesque and utterly disgusting final transformation.

While The Fly was often seen as a metaphor for AIDS, Cronenberg has said that his real inspiration was the bodily degradation caused by terminal diseases, something that shows up in a lot of his work — and which has a lot to do with the fact that both his parents had cancer.

Here, as in Scanners, however, the sexual obsessions of most of his work play a smaller part, and the horrific transformations are deeply personal.  It seems more controlled than some of his films, less nihilistic and ultimately, far more tragic.  It give this film a lot of power — and, I suspect, makes those mutations seem far more shocking than the images alone would be.  It is a classic — even if it isn’t one that one would watch over and over again for mere enjoyment.

Note, however, that this version is radically different from the one made in the Fifties. The filmmakers went back to the original story for inspiration and found that the hero didn’t just end up with a fly head.  This reminds me of how, four years earlier, John Carpenter had done the same with his version of The Thing.  As a result, they aren’t just remakes of the originals, but a riff on the original themes and are more companion piece than remake or sequel.  A lot of young writers and directors could learn from this.

I do have one quibble though: when Seth’s girlfriend learns she is pregnant, she’s terrified that her child will be some sort of horrible fly mutant.

The problem is that Seth’s DNA has been fused with a creature which is radically different from us — or perhaps it would be closer to say “mixed” as the computer in his machine essentially creates a new genetic code from the two original patterns.  How likely is it that such a freakish, computer-generated mixture would result in something which could fertilize human reproductive cells?

Or for that matter, those of a fly?

And even if it did, what are the odds that the resulting hybrid-hybrid would actually be a viable child?

Let’s face it: very, very poor.

So stop worrying.  The kid’s fine.

It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.

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The Rivets Zone:  The Best SF Movies You’ve Never Seen!

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