So I've always loved this movie, for both as good as it is and as intelligent as it is, but this is one of those I was hesitant to write about since it is covered so extensively elsewhere. But then came that night where I didn't feel like watching anything I had from Netflix and this started looking like good fun to watch and review. And I fell in love all over again.
The movie's operatic intentions are announced by a big orchestral burst at the beginning. Composer Howard Shore did in fact turn this film into an opera, which played in London. We then see these festering moving colors, looking very much like a swarm of crawling flies, but which eventually resolve into humans at a party. There we meet Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle, being interviewed by world-weary science journalist Geena Davis as Veronica (later Ronnie). He tells her he is working on something that'll change the world, and succeeds in luring her back to his apartment, in these run-down warehouses. There she sees these machines that she takes for high-tech phone booths. They are telepods, and their look was inspired by a part of director David Cronenberg's motorcycles, and once you take a look at a motorcycle you can clearly see the part under discussion. He tells her to give him something personal, and she removes one of her stockings. He places it in one pod, there are some nicely orchestrated flashes of light, and now it's in the other pod. What happened? It was reconstructed at the atomic level, then reconstructed in the other pod--it's the same idea as Star Trek's transporters. Ronnie realizes that she is on to a huge story.
Also happening at the same time is the thread that Brundle is extremely smart, but also socially-isolated without a lot of experience with women. His relation to Ronnie is flirtatious from the start, which is smartly emphasized by her taking off her stocking and handing it to him. When she takes out a tape recorder he protests, saying he showed her just as a new friend, which causes her to leave. She takes her work straight to her boss at Particle magazine, where she hopes to publish the story. Her boss is John Getz (best known as the star of Blood Simple) as Stathis Borans, who she used to have an affair with and who hasn't quite gotten over her. Watching this again reminded me of the important place Getz in this role, bearded and insensitively horny, gave rise to my personal attraction for hot, sleazy scumbags. Bundle arrives and strikes a deal for Veronica to cover his story exclusively, with the object of it all coming out in a wildly important book. She agrees.
Then comes one of the big gore moments, in which Brundle tries to transport a baboon, and ends up with a living but inside-out animal. It would seem that his machine is fine with inanimate objects, but can't handle living ones. Brundle says it doesn't understand the flesh. Veronica soon makes clear her attraction to Seth, who, being a honest-to-goodness hot nerd, doesn't have any sense of this. They have sex, and afterward, she comments (rather out of the blue) that she could just eat him up, and "that's why grandmothers pinch babies' cheeks; the flesh just makes them crazy." This causes Seth to bolt upright, saying that this is what the machine is missing, it needs to be made crazy by the flesh (which he now understands, though his sex with Ronnie). It is probable that these people discuss "the flesh" in casual conversation much more than you or I, but I don't want to assume. He then runs off to program the machine to go crazy over the flesh, the mechanics of which are smartly left obscure. He then tries again with a different baboon, and this time--it works!
The couple are ready to celebrate and discuss going on a vacation together (watching again it was more apparent than before that they had JUST slept together for the first time that night), when Ronnie gets a package from Borans, indicating that he's interested in horning in on her work. She goes off to deal with him, and Seth soon puts together that she's with Borans, and assumes that they're still together. He gets drunk, and jealous, and after conferring with his buddy the sweet baboon (this movie also made me want a pet baboon, in addition to a horny bearded scumbag), he puts himself through the machine himself. We note that a fly got into the transporter with him, unnoticed. This whole dynamic--Seth's irrational jealousy--works because of the way the movie has set him up as inexperienced with relationships. At this point the movie also smartly plays against expectations raised by the original film, in which the protagonist emerges with a giant fly head, by having Seth come out and be apparently fine.
SPOILERS > > >
But he's not just fine, he feels great. Ronnie returns in the morning and finds Seth imbued with great vigor--he is able to do all these acrobatics and feats of strength. She also finds a strange, bristly hair on him. He puts a ton of sugar in his coffee, super-animated and hyped-up on the new energy he suddenly has. He and Ronnie go home and fuck until she is worn out, but he's still ready to go. He thinks that the process has purified him, When he starts insisting that Ronnie go through as well, she draws the line, and he kicks her out. He goes out (notice the music suddenly turns operatic and overwhelming again) and, after a notable arm wrestling match, takes home this floozy. Her name is Tawny, played by Joy Boushel, and she just makes for an awesome floozy, happy to go with the strongest male on hand at the time, her face ready to slide into cynical suspicion when it turns out she was misled once again. I'm ready for a spinoff series about her. She spends the night with Seth, then he wants her to go through, when suddenly Ronnie turns up and delivers the immortal line "Be afraid. Be very afraid." This was the line in the script before it became the tagline for the movie, and you can see the marketing department happily settling on it, because what else are they going to say? "Life sucks, then your face falls off?"
Ronnie also delivers lines I think are effective: "You look bad. You SMELL bad." She tells him she had the hairs off his back analyzed and they're insect hairs. He kicks her out, but goes into the bathroom and finds his fingernails oozing pus and coming off. He goes to the machine and here's where he discovers what's happened to him. This is accomplished through a nice visual sequence that slowly reveals the fly that got into the transporter with him. He then tries to determine if he absorbed the fly, but it says no, it spliced the fly's DNA with his at the genetic level. Look, exposition must be delivered, and you have to admire when a movie finds a way to do it without it seeming overbearing. We see Seth's eyes grow wide, then the screen fades to black, as this is the thematic end to a chapter of the film.
Now Seth calls Ronnie, and she let's us know that it's been four weeks since she last saw him. This rings a tiny bit false, as almost everything we saw previously occurred within 48 hours of when he first went through, so it would seem the process slowed considerably after that. She comes over, and finds Seth looking pretty darn bad. As he's speaking to her, he casually picks up a donut and pukes on it, then catches himself and says "Oh, that's disgusting." Around now is when you have to start admiring that Seth has been set up as having a very intelligent sense of humor, which reveals itself as he asks Ronnie to continue documenting his change, saying "At the very least, it'll make a delightful children's book." Another example of his grim humor is when Ronnie returns later, after various body parts have fallen clean off, and he tells her "You've missed some good moments."
Ronnie then discovers that she's pregnant, which horrifies her. We go right into the infamous birth sequence (Cronenberg himself plays the doctor) where she gives birth to a huge maggot, which is revealed to be a dream. She goes to see Seth and he gives maybe my favorite speech of the movie, on "insect politics." He goes on about all the new things he's thinking about, the new way he's seeing things, and ultimately it comes down to his whispered "I'll hurt you if you stay." He has a scheme where he can (perhaps?) return to being human if he gets another human to go through, and let the machine combine them, replacing what's lost in Seth with the good parts of the other person (this becomes the crux of cheesily delightful The Fly II). She leaves and runs outside to Borans where she says she has to get an abortion like, NOW. We see Seth atop the roof, listening.
This is where the movie starts to move more explicitly into Phantom of the Opera-style territory, with a romantic tinge to the love between a woman and a monster. And when we saw Seth on the roof here, like the Phantom, something occurred to me; in another movie, say Joe Johnston's recent The Wolf Man remake (remember that one? No?) we might have a huge full moon and dramatic CGI clouds behind Seth, in order that we be SURE we all understand that Seth is being positioned as a Phantom-like antihero. But here, Seth is just on the roof with a black sky behind him, i.e. the reference isn't shoved in your face, allowing YOU to make the connection. Because of this, it actually works, you come up with the connection on your own and their relationship actually SEEMS to have a monstrous/tragic romanticism. If he had been in front of a huge full moon, and the reference had been made obvious, you would have perceived how the filmmakers WANT you to think that (i.e. the statement comes from outside and is directed AT you), and you would just perceive it as what THEY want you to think, absorb it and think no more about it.
The romantic antihero thing continues as Seth bursts through the window of the abortion clinic and carries Ronnie away over the rooftops. They return to his lab, where Borans has gone with his shotgun. Seth doesn't take kindly to this, and dissolves his hand and foot with his acidic saliva. He explains that he's going to throw Ronnie in one booth and he in the other, and they will all be combined into one being, "the ultimate family." It's good that he got this exposition out before his whole face finally fell off, right? Borans pulls it together enough to save Ronnie, and poor Seth gets fused with part of the telepod itself. He comes out and points the muzzle of the shotgun at his head, a nice analogue of the famous "help me" that ended the original film. The operatic theme is further carried through by the scene fading out as Ronnie collapses in sobs, the end.
< < < SPOILERS END
Well, I've gone over everything good about this in the recitation of its plot, so let's just review. Seth's character, intelligence and inexperience with women lay the foundation for the entire story and lay behind all the machinations of the plot, and you have to step back and appreciate how rare that is for a horror film. The film has an operatic feel that works for it, and seems to rise organically from it, rather than forced on to give it momentum. It explores an area of horror not often seen, which is watching ones own body slowly decay and fall apart. In similar movies, like The Incredible Melting Man, the decaying one soon becomes an object of horror for others, and becomes objectified that way, but here we stay closely with Seth and he remains a sympathetic character. It smartly develops themes from the original and finds new directions to go with them, justifying its own existence as a reworking, not a rehash. It has better performances than horror movies usually get. And finally it all just has a great structure and rising momentum that doesn't waste a second.
Turns out there were many notable scenes that were deleted (and are available on the DVD), two of which deserve note. The first is a scene in which Seth, at the midpoint of his transformation, experiments with making hybrids by combining his friendly baboon (guess they weren't that close after all) with a cat. The resulting hybrid attacks him, and he beats it to death with a pipe. This caused preview audiences to turn against Seth for the rest of the film, not just because he did that to a cute kitty, but because the baboon was shown to be such a snuggly sweetie earlier in the film. So it was yanked. Then there was a coda at the end of the film, four versions of which were developed before being yanked, in which Ronnie, now back with Borans, wakes from a bad dream. She is pregnant, and Borans reminds her that it's his baby, not Seth's. Then she goes back into a dream, in which we see a baby hatch from a chrysalis, spread butterfly wings and fly into a brilliant light. Awwww--closure! But audiences weren't ready to go there after the horror they had just gone through, and it just seemed like a distraction.
So there you are, a justified horror classic that stands up to time. After this achievement, which can be seen as the cap to his horror phase, Cronenberg started going more serious until he became the acclaimed director of Oscar-bait movies that he is today. So if you've never seen this, get to it, and if you have, you'll find it has barely aged a day. Go Cronenberg!
You've already seen it, haven't you? You're a smart cookie.