Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the rote plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.
Grade: 96 (A)
After releasing two films back-to-back in 1983 (Videodrome and The Dead Zone), David Cronenberg took a few years to get a project going. The director first worked on a version of Total Recall that would have starred either William Hurt or Richard Dreyfuss before realizing that he and producer Dino De Laurentiis had different ideas on where the project should go. When that folded, Cronenberg was offered a chance by producer Mel Brooks (who had previously given the chance of a litetime to another strange auteur, David Lynch, with The Elephant Man) to direct an update of the cheesy 1950s sci-fi film The Fly. But anyone expecting big laughs was in for a surprise- The Fly is not only one of Cronenberg’s most horrifying films, but also one of his most emotionally devastating.
Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is working on something that “is going to change the world”, he insists to reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). Seth has invented a teleporter, much to Veronica’s amazement. The only problem: he can’t transport living things without turning them inside out. He gives Veronica the chance to cover his work as he tries to solve the problem, and the two soon begin a passionate love affair. One day, after seemingly solving the problem, Seth decides to send himself through the pod. A fly is caught in the pod with Seth, and the two are fused together. At first, Seth appears normal, even enhances. But Seth’s behavior grows increasingly erratic, and soon his body begins to fall apart as he turns into a strange hybrid of human and fly.
It’s easy to get stuck on the body horror elements of The Fly- they’re disgusting. Cronenberg had certainly done some strange and shocking things with the body before, but now, with a bigger budget, he uses every penny to make every effect as tactile and as effective as possible. The machine turns a baboon inside out. Seth starts growing gross, thick fly-like hairs on his body. When Seth displays newfound strength, he demonstrates it in the most horrifying way possible- in an arm-wrestling contest where he snaps a man’s bone. And then there’s the decay- first his fingernails fall off and start squirting pus, then his face starts to fall apart, and finally appendages start to fall off. Dehumanization has rarely been made as literal, or as disgusting, as with Seth’s transformation. When we learn that Seth has to vomit on his food to digest it, just like a fly, it’s hard not to be repulsed.
But the effects are never gratuitous. Rather, they’re in service to one of the finest stories Cronenberg had ever put on screen. The Fly Cronenberg’s increasing maturity as a filmmaker, with a little empathy to balance out Cronenberg’s usual chilliness. The opening of the film feels like it could be a screwball comedy, with Goldblum and Davis trading wry one-liners and flirtations before he wins her over by showing her what his invention can do. From there, we get an almost Spielbergian sense of wonder at Seth’s intelligence, the possibilities of his invention, and the genuine human emotion between the two central characters. Yet it’s not a total gearshift when things do get horrifying- we’ve had hints that things could go wrong, and Cronenberg does a good job crafting a mood of slow-burning suspense as Seth grows increasingly megalomaniacal and jealous. Even before we see how things go wrong, we know it’s headed to bad places.
There’s a number of reasons The Fly hits on a stronger gut-level than some of Cronenberg’s earlier films. Cronenberg’s past features, The Dead Zone excepted, were mostly original scripts that followed Cronenberg to whatever strange places he’d take us. Imaginative and ambitious as he is, many of Cronenberg’s films, even great ones like Videodrome and Shivers, buck narrative trends in order to show us something we’ve never seen before. This isn’t necessarily a downside, but Videodrome’s draw is mostly cerebral rather than emotional. The Fly, on the other hand, shows Cronenberg working with a co-screenwriter. True, the two worked on the script at different times, but it’s likely that the more conventional narrative Charles Edward Pogue crafted gave Cronenberg a stronger framework for the director to bring his usual obsessions to.
And bring those obsessions he does, albeit not without some new influences. Sure, Cronenberg retains Nabakov’s wit and chilliness, Burrough’s interest in abstraction and transformation, and Kafka’s pessimistic sense of how transformation confuses and frightens us. But there’s more relatable elements as well. The early introductions between Goldblum and Davis feel like they’re right out of a screwball comedy, which is highly effective at showing us who these two are and why we should care about them. That Spielbergian sense of wonder certainly helps make things more relatable as well. Cronenberg also borrows from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, another tale of science and creation gone terribly wrong.
One of the film’s key strengths, however, is the sense of tragedy that permeates the film. Part of that comes from Howard Shore’s exquisite score, which would rank alongside The Silence of the Lambs and The Lord of the Rings as one of his very best. Shore’s score (that is so fun to type/say) starts out with a sense of wonder, with little twinges of horror. Sure, there’s a sense that things can go wrong, but how can one not be astonished by everything going on. As Goldblum starts to show changes in behavior, however, hints of tragedy start to break through. There’s still a sense of wonder and discovery, but it starts to become horrifying, and we can sense Goldblum’s oncoming downfall. By the end, the tragedy overcomes both the horror and sci-fi-wonder elements for a truly operatic feeling (it makes sense, in a way, that Shore and Cronenberg did end up turning the film into an opera).
What makes the tragedy effective is the fact that Cronenberg seems to actually care about these characters more than in his previous films, where he was seemingly completely detached. There are only three major characters- Seth, Veronica, and Veronica’s editor/ex-boyfriend Stathis Borans (John Getz). Borans is an interesting character in that he’s initially one of the least-likable people in Cronenberg’s filmography. He’s a scummy jerk who’s initially dismissive of Seth until he decides to exploit Seth’s story out of spite. He’s deeply possessive of and manipulative toward Veronica, and it’s easy to hate him for it. But as the film goes on and Seth is dehumanized, Stathis becomes more sympathetic and relatable, if only because he’s human and he fears for Veronica. It’s a smart reversal of expectations on Cronenberg’s part.
Veronica, meanwhile, is perhaps the strongest female lead in any of Cronenberg’s films (granted, he tends to put women in the supporting roles in his films). Davis is one of the most talented comediennes of her generation (I’ll echo my Thelma and Louise question: where the hell has she gone?), and she makes a great girl-Friday to Seth. But she’s more than just a charming love interest. She has real problems- a spiteful bastard of an ex, a career in science that went nowhere- and she’s a relatable audience surrogate. She has both a surprising amount of chemistry with Goldblum (the two were dating and later married in real life, but that doesn’t always transfer to the screen) and a sense of vulnerability not often present in Cronenberg’s films.
Jeff Goldblum has a difficult role in The Fly- he has to play first a meek, gawky, excited scientist, turn into an adrenaline-filled megalomaniac, and, under heavy make-up, go through deep existential despair and, finally, madness. Yet Goldblum never gets lost in the process in what’s easily the best performance of his career (Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, not generally Cronenberg fans, cried out that Goldblum was robbed of an Oscar nomination). What makes Seth Brundle so effective as a character is both Goldblum’s dynamism- shifting from likability to monstrousness very effectively- and Cronenberg’s empathy for a complex, deeply flawed character. He’s a man with an extraordinary amount of hubris, but he’s also an innovator trying to do something that no one else has ever done. Success takes him over-the-top, though, and he’s ultimately undone by his own innovation and ambition. Perhaps an innovative, ambitious filmmaker responded to this.
Brief side note: many interpreted The Fly as an allegory for AIDS. While Cronenberg has denied it (it really ties into his interest in transformation more than anything else), it’s be a remarkable allegory if so, what with Seth’s decay, alienation, and ultimate fate.
The Fly started out as a studio project, but it ultimately became one of Cronenberg’s most personal films. Many of Cronenberg’s previous films had identity as a major theme following transformation, but The Fly is, alongside Dead Ringers, the most complete portrait of this theme. As Seth’s behavior becomes more erratic, he starts to lose sense of his humanity. He doesn’t care that he could hurt others, emotionally or physically, and his newfound sexual prowess is deeply uncomfortable rather than exciting. He’s opening boundaries, but for the first time in a Cronenberg film there’s a sense that these boundaries are places that we absolutely, positively do not want to go. Seth becomes a monster figuratively, and then literally, as he starts to fall apart and realize what’s happening to him. It’s the strongest manifestation yet of Cronenberg’s interest in loss of control as Seth can only look on in horror at what he’s become. “Every time I look in the mirror, I see someone different”.
Seth grows more vulnerable and frightened until he finally embraces the change, losing almost all vestiges of his humanity (both spiritually and physically) and believing that he is truly a fly. He takes an anthropological detachment from his horrifying state, keeping his decaying body parts as relics of his past. He now has become more insect-like- “brutal, without compassion or compromise”. “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it…but now I’m awake, and the dream is over”. He’s lost all touch with humanity at this point and goes full-on mad scientist as he tries to take Veronica with him. But in the blood-soaked finale, when he’s fully transformed into a fly and he slowly starts to die, there’s a final glimpse of what was once before as he begs Veronica to end his life. The Fly's emotional climax reaches human tragedy as Shore’s score swells. What began as wonder and gave way to horror ends in tears.
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