The Fly (Collector’s Edition) / The Fly II (Special Edition) (1986/1989)

Director: Chris Walas
Cast: Eric Stoltz, Daphne Zuniga, Lee Richardson
(20th Century Fox, 1989) Rated: R
DVD release date: 4 October 2005 (Fox)

by Bill Gibron
PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor

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Buzz Kill

The best horror movies are more than just spook shows. Classics like The Exorcist or Hellraiser incorporate significant social or interpersonal issues alongside their bountiful blood and guts. For many, David Cronenberg’s The Fly is an allegory for love in the time of AIDS. The plot may be centered on an experiment in teleportation that goes horribly wrong, but the love triangle subplot — scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) woos journalist Ronnie (Geena Davis), who once had a thing for her editor, sleazy Stathis (John Getz) — challenges generic conventions.

Here, a deeply devoted lover must choose between the man she used to love, or the sensitive soul mate who has violently shapeshifted. If her affection can endure boils and pus, bodily degeneration and physical deformity, it is pure and powerful. But proving her love once is not enough: Brundlefly pushes again and again, creating a challenge so severe that is would take a final, fatal act to access its ultimate intensity. If it’s about anything, The Fly is about loss, of hope and heroics.

During the DVD commentary on this stellar re-release (which also includes a nearly three-hour making-of documentary), Cronenberg confesses that Seth’s genetic malady could easily be cancer or any other fatal disease. It could even be gross physical malformation à la John Merrick. For Cronenberg, retelling the 1950s sci-fi film based on a short story by George Langdon, love is lip service without an epic experience to confront it. During the course of The Fly that Seth basically remains the same: a vulnerable genius who sees Ronnie as his one emotional connection. Her rejection is as lethal as the bug beast he becomes. And yet, Seth finds a kind of love, when he says, as Brundlefly, that Ronnie may have to leave him forever. He’s now aware of the “evil” his insect self might inflict.

This is operatic macabre at its most visceral and visionary. The Fly fills the screen with viscous emotions, as brutal as Seth’s transformation. That is, Cronenberg works his usual obsessions into the love story, technology gone wrong, biology baffling the most intelligent of minds, as the telepods alter physics and redefine molecular make-up. Such metaphysical undercurrent was absent when The Fly was first conceived. During the documentary, screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue expresses a kind of revisionist remorse for being removed from the project when Cronenberg was brought in. He admits the final result is a denser film than his version, but can’t quite give the credit over to Cronenberg.

The DVD’s bonus materials underline that all efforts — from Goldblum’s Method madness to Davis’ growing affection for her costar — become pieces in a near perfect puzzle assembled by the director. Certainly there were production situations that bordered on the ridiculous (Cronenberg spent days on a “fly tongue” scene that was ultimately discarded), but the final film is testament to the rewards of exploration and risk-taking.

Sadly, all this is lost in the pointless sequel, The Fly II. The meat for an equally compelling tale exists, since the premise had Seth’s seed taking hold inside Ronnie (her nightmare in the first film provides one way to manage this). The result is a genetically “challenged” child with accelerated growth and a puberty-based metamorphosis. But instead of bringing Davis back to explore the substantive bond between parent and child, new director Chris Walas just goes for the grue.

The Fly II pits the company that underwrote Seth’s experiments and its egomaniacal chief, Anton Bartok (Lee Richardson), against Ronnie’s baby (she conveniently dies in childbirth). Seth’s struggle was both physical and emotional, but in this script (the effort of four different writers), the son’s problem is forced pathos and telegraphed manipulation. When Martin Brundle (an ineffective Eric Stoltz) takes a shining to a certain lab animal, we know this poor golden retriever is doomed. Sure enough, he is fodder for a failed experiment in teleportation, the mangled mutt becoming some kind of half-assed metaphor for Martin’s troubled capacity for trust. Later, when the “teenaged” Martin wants a place of his own, Bartok shows him around a hip, happening bachelor pad that just reeks of a surveillance set-up. When Martin beds a coworker (Daphne Zuniga) we get a spy eye camera view of the carnality, as Bartok has again conned the boy into being his glorified guinea pig.

In its only attempt to reference the previous film, Stathis reappears, substituting smarm for sympathy and eel oil for exposition. His scene makes no sense, and puts a peculiar spin on the story. Seems Stathis knows about a way in which Martin can “purge” the impure genes out of his body. All he needs is a willing human body and those damn pods. With Bartok demanding the boy be remanded to his care, the illogic light bulbs start blinking. We now know the finale and who will play part in it.

The final sequence, when Martin is reborn as a strange kind of masonite mantis (complete with Predator-style mandibles), has none of the impact of The Fly‘s similar three-way standoff. Instead, Martin is just a monster, a creature killing for the sake of some feebly prescribed justice. When Bartok begs for his life, arguing over the supposed bond he and Martin share, the tedious flashbacks (to their first meeting, the dog incident, the apartment tour) remind the audience why this character has to meet his end. In case we forgot.

Looking at the two films rationally, it is clear why one fails and one flourishes. The Fly II lacks a core concept, a way to move the flights of frightening fancy out of the world of nightmares and into the everyday. Cronenberg found this “way” inside the confounding and crippling notions of love. Timeless terror needs more than goop and glop. Only one Fly film even tried to get it right.