Thursday, October 25, 2012

Making Monsters #23: The Fly

David Cronenberg's The Fly, along with John Carpenter's The Thing and Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, makes the strongest case for the possibly artistic worthiness of remakes. Cronenberg took the original 1958 movie - a fun, campy B-picture with a memorably creepy ending - and transformed it into an intelligent, emotionally devastating story about disease and mortality that was particularly resonant to audiences when it was released in 1986 as the AIDS crisis was beginning to receive more attention from the mainstream media. The movie is anchored by strong performances from Jeff Goldblum as scientist Seth Brundle, who is on the verge of inventing a teleportation device, and Geena Davis as reporter Veronica Quaife, who is invited by Brundle to write a book on his invention and quickly falls for him; Goldblum and Davis, who were a real-life couple at the time, have terrific chemistry in the happier first half-hour of the film, and we're invested in their characters by the time Seth decides to try out his telepods on himself. At first the experiment seems like a smashing success, but a stray fly in the telepod causes Brundle to transform, in horrible ways, on a subatomic level. While the original film simply swapped out it's protagonist head with a giant fly's, Brundle's mutation is gradual, grotesque and realized in unflinching detail; as Veronica tries to help Seth, the movie becomes a surprisingly poignant story about what it means to love and care for someone in a finite lifetime.

Seth's transformation was designed by Chris Walas, who also worked on the original Gremlins and the face-melting climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Walas designed Brundle's transformation into Brundlefly (as the character refers to himself) in seven stages. Goldblum worked with prosthetics resembling grotesque lesions and deformities that eventually covered most of his bodies, as well as prosthetic teeth and, towards the end of the film, contact lenses to make his eyes appear larger. He was also required to spew fake vomit to illustrate Brundefly's new digestive habits (Goldblum's embarassed, matter-of-fact delivery of the line "That's disgusting" is one of the movie's few laughs). Through all of this, Goldblum's empathetic performance shines through - it's one of the best examples of an effects artist and actor's work complimenting each other. At the end of the film, as Seth completes his transformation into a six-foot fly, a series of animatronic puppets take over for Goldblum. The greatest compliment I can give Walas' work on the film is that, watching it, you forget that you're not watching Goldblum any more. As Seth wordlessly begs Veronica to put him out of his misery, the effects artists' "performance" is nuanced and completely believable; thanks to their work and Davis' performance (not to mention Howard Shore's brilliant score), it's a heartbreaking ending. Walas won the Oscar for Best Makeup Effects for his work, and he deserved it, but the entire cast and crew is just as instrumental in making this Cronenberg's best movie.

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