There is something about David Cronenberg’s The Fly that didn’t quite sit with me perfectly. The über respected Canadian horror director’s seminal body-horror movie isn’t bad, far from it in fact. Instead the fact that it is so good makes a certain strange quality to the film’s script all the more notable. The end result is that the movie just doesn’t agree with me. Not in the way that makes it sounds though. That’s also not meant to be a cutesy reference to the movie’s redoubted gore effects. I didn’t dislike the movie as a result of these scripting quirks. The much nerdier truth is that instead of just sitting facilely in a place of appreciation for David Cronenberg’s film, I absolutely have to pull apart and examine this slightly idiosyncratic script.
First some set dressing. The Fly came out in 1986. Apparently it came into this earth as a project designed for Tim Burton, which makes a shocking amount of sense (Michael Keaton was offered the role anyways), until you realize the script was heavily rewritten by David Cronenberg. It stars Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. It was a grimy, off-brand remake of an old horror movie transformed into a subtext-filled nauseating body-horror tour de force. A nauseating Canadian body-horror movie that, remarkably, did incredibly well in theatres. Lots of people went to see this movie, that, based on my lazy attempt at trawling through some history, probably gave birth to a whole mass of body horror tropes.
The Fly, for anyone who doesn’t know, is about a scientist named Seth Brundle (played by Jeff Goldblum) who has been working on a teleportation system. He meets a reporter named Veronica Quaife (played by Geena Davis, who was discovered because she was Goldblum’s real life girlfriend at the time) who agrees to document his attempt at changing the world. They slowly fall in love. Seth Brundle is having trouble sending living matter through the telepods though, resulting in at least one horribly disfigured baboon. Little tangent here, David Cronenberg was freaked out by the baboons and thinks they got along with Jeff Goldblum because of his strength and size. He was like a comforting big monkey! So great. Eventually Seth Brundle cracks the code to sending meat through the telepod. Unfortunately this comes in short succession with Brundle coming to the conclusion that Veronica is cheating on him with her ex-boyfriend. In reality her ex-boyfriend is blackmailing her with an article about Brundle.
In a drunken rage Seth Brundle decides to send himself through the teleport system. A tiny mistake lets a single fly into the pod with him. The telepod computer is thrown off, thinking that there should only be one thing in the pod. Consequently the system fuses Seth Brundle with the fly, something that’s not immediately apparent to Brundle. Basically there’s a while where Seth just feels amazing. He’s Spider-Man, ecstatically playing with the proportionate strength and reaction time of a fly. He simply believes the teleportation system has purged him of his impurities. He starts to become obsessed with the idea of the telepod as a religious reawakening. A way to transform the average human into an übermensch.
Of course he’s mistaken. As Seth and the fly’s DNA war, Seth begins to transform. It’s a slow and disgusting transformation filled with disintegration and pus and decomposition. Teeth fall out, limbs crumble, eyes and proportions bulge and shift. It’s deliberately disgusting.
Here’s a wonderful misunderstanding of the purpose this gore serves ripped from people.com:
“When Goldblum’s human fingernails fall off, Cronenberg dwells on the scene, as he does when Goldblum starts to eat someone’s leg. The fact is, of course, that any dolt could fill a movie with sickening stuff, and there’s nothing scary, funny or interesting about what Cronenberg has done. It is just tedious and insulting. Get the swatter.”
Of course this gore is actually a devious play on illness and disfigurement and the process of aging. Not much of the gore really got to me, but if watching people pull their teeth out and rip off their fingernails gets your stomach twisted this is not the movie for you. The physical transformations, while attention demanding, are also indicative of a far more dangerous development – the distortion of Seth Brundle’s mind. Slowly he becomes less human in every way.
Flies aren’t really known for their compassion, so his interactions with Veronica, who spends this stretch of the movie simply showing up every now and again to offer support and a sympathetic gaze at the appliance-covered Jeff Goldblum, get increasingly fraught with frightening potential. She’s long since given up on her hagiographic documentation of the event, now she just wants to be with her ex-lover as he dies. The biggest flourish comes when Veronica discovers she’s pregnant with the baby of the newly christened Brundlefly. This is already one spoiler too many, so I’ll gloss over the finale, which doesn’t really concern us in this instance.
It’s a really good movie, despite some of my trepidation concerning the script. Jeff Goldblum is amazing. The diseased symbolism is powerful and resonant. The gore is phenomenal. The movie lands just about everything it shoots for. Also it coined that oft-recycled and readjusted phrase “be afraid, be very afraid.” That was Mel Brook’s suggested tagline for the movie. It’s one of those movies where each of the small pieces involved came together perfectly: the three actors, the effects, the score, and Cronenberg’s direction. Goldblum, who even kept a pet fly in a plastic bag to study, is perfect as the nerdy, manic scientist, and just as perfect as the suffering, transforming mutant. The effects are still glorious. Very little about them seems dated, with the exception, perhaps, of some rubber-suit folds at Goldblum’s elbow here or there. Everything else looks horribly real, pulpy, wet, everything it needs to. The many scenes that see parts of Brundlefly collapsing or falling off or emerging are fluid and jarring in the exact way they should be. Howard Shore’s score is tremendous and suited to the film. Cronenberg brings an understated visual style and sense of grit that helps sell the movie.
It’s all great.
But the script is weird.
Not necessarily bad, in fact it might be kind of suited to the film, but it might be accidentally suited. The happy happenstance combination of a rookie attempt at scriptwriting by a writer who has done literally nothing else of note and a director stepping outside his comfort zone to do rewrites that happened to meld. Maybe it’s genius and I’m overly critical. But maybe not.
Here’s something David Cronenberg said about the script that I want to briefly point out: “It’s the first time I’ve read something where I thought I could have written that.”
Which seems pretty reasonable when you take a gander at Charles Edward Pogue’s other credits: Psycho III, Kull the Conquerer, and Dragonheart. In his defence, he was unhappy with what was done with his initial scripts in the case of those last two films, but that would entail that the only projects honestly representative of his skills are Psycho III and a couple of made for TV movies. I’m okay with Cronenberg taking a look at this guy’s script and going “geez, I could improve that.” He probably did. That doesn’t necessarily result in a script worth, you know, teaching in schools or anything.
There’s something weirdly formless and rambling about the story of David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Maybe rambling is the wrong word. It’s more like it’s slightly softer than it should have been. Slightly discursive. The actual meat of the script is solid, there’s just a weird presentation. Some of the dialogue is great, though apparently Jeff Goldblum improvised parts of the more periphrastic moments. There’s also some really good framework to the script. There is some phenomenal bone structure at play, but the dressing, I guess the meat if we want to carry on the metaphor and reference the movie in one fell sweep, is a little ill-formed. It’s not literally the presentation of the script though, it’s not the camerawork or direction, which ends up complementing the script’s oddities more than anything. It’s purely a script thing.
The big evidence, my big point of contention, is the Stathis storyline. Stathis Borans, played by John Getz, is Veronica’s ex-partner. He’s also her editor. He’s introduced right off the bat as a schmaltzy jerk still obsessed with Veronica. He’s belittling and manipulative and sexist and just generally an utter douche. He’s the catalyst for every plot point in the movie. In a genuinely effective, well-structured way. He also gets a major character arc that largely happens between scenes. Which is okay, degenerative illness inspires cuts that cover lot of time. This does have a rough side effect though. Stathis basically transforms from a villain to a hero and it’s entirely undramatized. Which isn’t necessarily a bad choice, but it does miss out on truly capitalizing on a major character arc.
Which, right off the bat is a point against the script. It doesn’t hurt the script, but it does relegate a lot of potential, and a lot of important textual events, to the utter background. Stathis literally gets to help solve everyone’s problems at the end of the movie, fighting against great odds and whatnot. Or rather he gets the shit kicked out of him but still finds the strength to save Veronica from Brundlefly. The movie just snaps its fingers and he’s basically good. There’s some implied reasons and one or two hints at the change, but generally it just happens when we’re not watching.
That’s hardly all Stathis does for the movie though. His most obvious, dramatic contribution is the transformation of Seth Brundle. That’s the big, crystal clear plot point he generates. Brundlefly is basically entirely his fault. He blackmails Veronica, threatening to expose Seth if she doesn’t start working with him again. Seth just sees her receive a package from her ex-boyfriend and go running off late into the night. He connects some dots and assumes they’re sleeping together. He gets drunk and goes through the telepods. Stathis Borans is totally the inciting incident at play here. He creates and kills Brundlefly.
That’s not even all of it though! He sends Veronica to cover the event she meets Seth at. His reaction to her article on Seth helps drive the two of them together. So he introduces the two of them, drives them together, gets Seth to go through his teleportation system, helps Veronica try to get an abortion (which puts her in harms way and generates the finale), and saves her from Brundlefly. That is the action of a major character.
In fact, according to someone else’s notes about the DVD’s audio commentary, David Cronenberg absolutely envisioned this movie as having a love-triangle rooted into the core of its DNA.
So why does Stathis Borans absolutely feel like a secondary, or even tertiary, character?
He’s a major contributor to the plot. He has a major contribution to everyone else’s character arcs. He has a major character arc of his own. He’s a force of direction all through the film. However his arc is undramatized. His motivations are hazy. His only dramatized moment is the blackmailing, and even then he peters out harmlessly. Which is part of his character, but the movie lets him peter away. He arguably has the most effect on the plot and he was envisioned as being part of the film’s backbone. Yet his contributions feel formless and diminished.
Like I said before the ultimate effect is a movie with this strange shapeless, faded edge to it. It ends up sort of working with the grimy realistic style the movie presents, lending it a feeling of un-movieness that compliments the desired tone. But it still ultimately feels like a coincidence. A misstep that’s only noticeable if you really unpack the film’s genetic makeup.