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The Fly (1986)

I’ve been having a really crappy weekend. The past couple of days have been marked by quite a few instances of bad luck, one of which was yesterday’s movie. I still have a bad taste left in my mouth over that one, and my craving for horror cinema goes unabated.

So in lieu of reviewing another new release, I decided to watch a sure thing. Some great horror classic with a stellar reputation that I just haven’t gotten around to yet. Luckily, I’ve been saving a DVD for just such an occasion: The Fly. Specifically, the David Cronenberg version, which is allegedly one of the precious few remakes that are better than the original.

Though I can’t comment on the original film, I can say that the remake does have some remarkable strengths. But man oh man, does this remake have its problems as well.

The obvious place to start is with Seth Brundle himself (Jeff Goldblum). This character is damaged because right off the bat, he’s showing off his teleportation device to get the journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) into bed. And that’s as much motivation as I got from this character. I understood that he desperately wanted the machine to work, and I know he wanted to change the world with it, but that’s it. Was he after fame? Fortune? Scientific breakthroughs? The betterment of mankind as a species? Yes, I know he goes on about that last point later on, but that’s clearly the mutation talking.

When he first introduces the machine, it’s for a chance at getting laid. In fact, for all I know, he invented the machine just as a means to pick up chicks. When he uses the machine on himself — thus putting the whole plot into motion — it’s purely out of anger, jealousy, and inebriation. Everything I learned about this character depicted him as a sad, socially inept genius with a weird stare. Honestly, it didn’t seem like there was very much of Brundle’s humanity to lose in the first place.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it took me a long time to get Brundle as a tragic figure. He’s not a victim of his own ambition, greed, or scientific curiosity, so far as I could tell. If anything, he was just a victim of his own libido, which isn’t nearly as interesting, profound, or sympathetic. Furthermore, because Brundle didn’t seem like much of a decent human being to begin with, it takes a lot of emotional punch out of his monstrous transformation. Luckily, I’m pretty sure that all of this was intentional.

It really speaks volumes that Goldblum’s performance improves exponentially with each application of makeup. This culminates in a remarkable scene partway through the third act, in which Brundle muses that maybe he’s always been a monster, it just took a scientific mishap to make it clear. But then he continues struggling to be more human, which undoes the whole point.

Then there’s the matter of Geena Davis, whose performance here is a very mixed bag. As a case in point, it’s Veronica who says the film’s famous line, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” The line looks great on paper and it works perfectly in the context of the film, but Davis’ delivery of that line falls flat on the floor.

There’s also the matter of the core relationship between Brundle and Veronica. Goldblum and Davis do a good enough job of selling the relationship when it gets underway, but the process of getting there was terribly unconvincing. I completely failed to understand why this perfectly stable and rational woman would fall so quickly in love with this creepy basket case. Did I miss a reel of film somewhere?

Nevertheless, it bears repeating that Goldblum and Davis both do a remarkable job of selling the romance when it’s finally in progress. In point of fact, I think that Veronica’s story — a woman who falls in love with a mad scientist, powerless to save him when an experiment backfires — is by far more interesting than that of Brundle’s. Moreover, when Veronica’s big twist comes at the start of the third act, Davis absolutely nails it. Without getting into spoilers, this is the rare film that actually handles a particularly sensitive subject while effectively capturing the various ethics and dilemmas involved. Davis’ performance is a huge part of that, so kudos to her.

As for the movie’s third and final main character, don’t even get me started. At first, Stathis Borans (John Getz) is the douchebag ex-boyfriend, the sleazy employer, and the flimsy antagonist. Then all of a sudden, he’s the hero and the moral support. In the first half, he’s driving Veronica away by his own sickening behavior. In the second half, he’s the only one that Veronica can turn to for help. It’s a contradiction that might have worked if Stathis hadn’t made it obvious that he was just a money-grubbing sleaze who was only interested in Veronica for sex. Every time the film asked me to see him as a hero, I kept flashing back to the prick I saw at the start of the film. His development from one point to the other didn’t make any lick of sense.

This whole problem might have been avoided if Stathis was split into two or more characters. Better yet, Stathis should never have been an antagonist to begin with. We’ve already got a scientist steadily turning into an abomination. Isn’t that enough conflict to be getting on with?

Ah, but of course this movie isn’t remembered for its characters. No, this movie is remembered for its special effects, and they are indeed glorious. That said, some certainly look better than others. The hand dissolving shot, for example, hasn’t aged very well at all. There’s also a scene in which Brundle is trying out his new physical strength, but the editing makes it woefully clear that there’s a body double at work.

Even so, the makeup effects are phenomenal. Brundle looks more than suitably grotesque through the whole movie, and his final climactic transformation is truly remarkable stuff. Praise is also due to the effects that have nothing to do with makeup. The final monster’s puppetry looks really good, and the scenes of Brundle’s wall-crawling were executed superbly. Even the teleporter pods themselves were wonderfully designed, with a vibe that was nicely creepy and foreboding.

Finally, I just have one more minor gripe. It’s really just a nitpick, but it’s worth putting down all the same. Something that I noticed about this film was its painfully obvious aversion to nudity. This movie — hell, the premise of this movie — is filled to the brim with sex scenes and bodily gross-outs, yet the camera and the characters go to laughably contrived lengths to keep from showing anything. I might understand if this was a PG-13 movie, but no, this is an R-rated film. The damage was already done, but the filmmakers were still totally afraid of showing nudity in scenes that practically demanded them. I don’t get it, but whatever.

Put simply, The Fly is one half of a great movie. When Brundle is decomposing, when Veronica is grappling with her love for the poor doctor, and when Stathis is called upon to do some heroics, the movie works wonderfully. The problem is that everything up to that point flat doesn’t work. Pre-transformation Brundle isn’t properly developed, his relationship with Veronica feels terribly rushed, and Stathis buries himself so deeply that no amount of heroics could pull him back out.

With all of that said, I really don’t know if this film should be remade again. On the one hand, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that this story could be improved upon. On the other hand, the practical effects are so damned impressive that seeing it remade with CGI would break my film geek’s heart. It’s the practical effects that really make this movie worth watching, albeit with lowered expectations.

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