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

Bill Gibron

Timeless terror needs more than goop and glop. Only one Fly film even tried to get it right.

The Fly (collector's Edition)

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz
Distributor: Fox
MPAA rating: R
Studio: 20th Century Fox
First date: 1989
US DVD Release Date: 2005-10-04
Amazon affiliate

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

:. e-mail this article
:. print this article
:. comment on this article

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.