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You’re the pattern and the prototype for a whole new age of biological exploration.

The Fly II
(1989)

(SPOILERS) David Cronenberg was not, it seems, a fan of the sequel to his hit 1986 remake, and while it’s quite possible he was just being snobby about a movie that put genre staples above theme or innovation, he wasn’t alone. Fox had realised, post-Aliens, that SF properties were ripe for hasty follow ups, and indiscriminately mined a number of popular pictures to immediately diminishing returns during the period (Cocoon, Predator). Neither critics nor audiences were impressed. In the case of The Fly II, though, it would be unfair to label the movie as outright bad. It simply lacks that *idea* that would justify the cash-in.

For a while during its development, it might have been different. Perhaps not in terms of fidelity to the Cronenberg styling, but nevertheless bringing something distinctive to the table. It seems Sam Raimi was attached – perhaps not so deranged, given Mel Brooks was a producer on the picture – and he “and his brother wrote a different treatment that went way out to cloud wacky land, and that would’ve been amazing. And it didn’t work out”.

The way Mick Garris, who earns the prime screenwriter credit on the picture – he left to helm Critters 2 and a career of forgettable Stephen King adaptations, leaving rewrites to Frank Darabont (A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors) and Jim and Ken Wheat (A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master) – tells it, the concept was caught between two producer taste stools. The now banished, laptop-hurling Scott Rudin was in the corner for something “smart and adult”, but new Fox chief Leonard Goldberg “wanted a teenage monster movie. Something completely other than what we planned. We had to give in, though, and I tried to do something as good as possible under the circumstances…

Frankly, I’m a little sceptical that, given a freehand, Garris would have turned in anything as thematically rich as the Cronenberg remake, as nothing in his career suggests a writer/director of refined tastes and insights (he does sound like a really nice guy, though, so there’s that). Indeed, as Garris remembers it, his version “had to do with the right to abortion rights and saw this child grow up in a highly religious environment, bordering on fanaticism, you know, ‘Don’t abort your kid, we’ll raise it in a good Christian home’, and of course all that goes wrong”.

Which doesn’t sound enormously stimulating. The key with Cronenberg, if one is attempting to invoke his spirit, is an amoral, clinical interest in all sides, particularly with regard to the virus, or the evolution of the form; I suspect, in part, he didn’t like The Fly II simply because it came down on the side of rejecting the transformation, where for him, getting on board with it was everything. A resolved, happy ending in terms of status quo is never on his mind.

Garris takes credit for several of The Fly II’s more memorable elements (“some aspects of Lee Richardson’s character and the relationship the lead has with this dog”) but eventually moved on to the richer and more fulfilling realm of Critters 2. There’s also mention of another sequel take, Flies, from Tim Lucas, that would have kept Geena Davis in the picture, given her twin sons and involved cloning Jeff. Hmmm. I have my suspicions over how self-fulfilling this actually was in being considered, or Cronenberg approving it, and a citation is needed (it shows up on Wiki). The same for the prospect Renny Harlin making it with then-wife Geena during the ’90s.

Then, of course, there’s Cronenberg’s opera, and his mooted remake of his remake: “more of a sequel or a sidebar. It was a meditation on fly-ness. None of the same characters or anything and, of course, with an understanding of modern technology. It was something I was very pleased with and it was a disappointment not to get it made”. From that description, I’m unsurprised it wasn’t, David. Sounds rather like giving Lynch carte blanche to return to Twin Peaks and absolutely not delivering the flavour that made it so beloved. Which is, after all, what the money men are after. Association. Nostalgia. Continuing commercial cachet.

The movie we get, Son of The Fly – well Return of the Fly, if you like, which also found the son following in his father’s footsteps; notably too, the son is restored at the end of the movie – makes no attempts to offer a twist on exactly the course one would expect a sequel to run. Obviously, Martin Brundle (Eric Stolz) will have been genetically altered by the union between mum Veronica (here briefly played by Geena-like Saffron Henderson) and dad Seth (Jeff). Obviously, he will need a romantic interest. Obviously, there have to be corporate interests that initially appear to be his friends but turn out to be nefarious. Obviously, Martin will only gradually discover he is destined to end up with really crooked teeth.

On the positive side, Lee Richardson is very good value as Anton Bartok, CEO of the firm that financed Seth first time out. He’s convincingly a nice guy until he isn’t, roughly around the point we realise he didn’t euthanise Martin’s poor teleported pet pooch but kept it in a Universal-pictures dungeon with slop to eat, the results rather resembling something out of Meet the Feebles. Frankly, one might put the movie’s failure down to this alone, since audiences are much more squeamish about anyone doing nasty things to cute doggies than humans. Hence the just-desserts similar fate for Bartok. Note, however, that even The Fly II refrained from mashing up a cute ickle kitten. That would have been beyond the pale.

The situation reaches the point where even Scorby (Gary Chalk), far more overtly loathsome than Bartok, protests the “capture him alive” approach, noting how Martinfly has killed three people; “That’s tragic and sad. But I haven’t come this far to lose everything now”. Bartok’s obviously seeing things from the perspective of the company balance sheet, versed in selling such progress as beneficial to humanity (“Imagine… a new era of surgery without any incision”), when he states his objective as the moustache-twirling “Bartok Industries will control the form and function of all life on Earth”. While he has no particular new horizon in mind, however, he undoubtedly qualifies as a budding transhumanist.

The writers posit a familiar world of science labs where nefarious corporations conduct nefarious experiments, where the scientists – Ann Marie Lee’s Jainway, Frank Turner’s Shepard – are unsympathetic bastards as grist to deserving whatever’s coming their way. Security head Scorby is likewise so unapologetically evil (as is anyone called Scorby) for precisely this reason (“I enjoyed spying on your girlfriend”).

First (and only) time director Chris Walas, most famously of Gremlins’ puppets, is dealing with a very interior piece, much like the original movie, although he manages to get outside a few times. The cast is correspondingly limited, with consequently few places for the plot to go. Daphne Zuniga’s the required love interest, and one might suggest having an intimate relationship with a five-year-old is a very Hollywood piece of writing (while I doubt anyone thought this through, even John Getz’s returning Borans draws attention to it – “Little big for five years old, aren’t you?” – and this is the decade of “adorable” adult-child romance in Big). It’s a thankless part, and indicative of Fox’s boss getting his unnunanced version of a sequel way.

Beth: You can’t walk... and you’re getting worse…

Stoltz had already been buried in prosthetics for Mask, and was used to playing sensitive types (Some Kind of Wonderful) rather than happy-go-lucky ones (Back to the Future). There’s an essential problem right here, as The Fly’s success was equal parts down to the juxtaposition of ice-cold Cronenberg with livewire Goldblum. Stoltz isn’t one to go big and broad; he’s essentially affable, and without a strong character arc, he’s going to become somewhat anonymous.

There are a few attempts to make Martin more than simply a naïve romantic, shedding a tear for his terribly tormented pet (his discussion of scientific myopia as the root of the team’s failure to make the teleport to work, whereby one must perceive “the beauty of the process”). But just as he’s given a chance to do some actual acting (“Don’t you see? I’m healing”), injecting staccato rhythms into the performance (“I’m getting… better!”) he only gets himself cocooned (à la Gremlins) and then goes full Brundlefly. One might lay this at the door of Walas the technician, wanting to cut to the chase of Brundlefly spitting spewing and vomiting, but I doubt there was anything substantially extra on the page.

Certainly, contemporary reviews accused the picture of existing only for the grue. Mark Kermode characterised it as “standard directionless fare” in Time Out, and pointed to the “onslaught of latex and squishy effects… which is the movie’s only interesting commodity”. Markus Natten, in the Film Yearbook Volume 8, likewise saw it as “uninspired” and just another “blood-drenched teen monster flick”.

Which, for all The Fly II’s failings, is seriously overstating the case. I’m sure many of the target audience were keen to see the FX, and Fox’s thinking reflected this view in terms of director – why else would you get Walas? – and writers – let’s call in the Freddy scribes to boost teen appeal – but The Fly II isn’t really vastly grosser than Cronenberg’s movie. Sure, a security guy’s face is melted by fly spit, and another gets squished by a lift, but we also have Borans reminding us Seth “dissolved my hand foot with fly vomit”. That happened to someone we’d actually got to know.

Getz is the only returnee, and getz (ahem) a brief scene at the beginning and an extended one when Beth and a deteriorating Martin show up at his door. The character’s expectedly ungracious, but he at least adds a touch of humour to the proceedings. I can see why the scene of Martin spewing vomit over a car window, behind which some urchins have been mocking him, was deleted, because it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and therefore anomalous to anything else in the movie. All the same, I wish they’d left it in. The alternate ending is worthwhile too, as Martin, with a discoloured eye (presumably Bartok’s) confirms to Beth that he is “better, much better”. It adds an appropriately unsettling final note, but like the laughter, it’s a bit more tonally expansive than anything else we see.

Martin: Do you have any organic matter I could borrow?

The Fly II wasn’t the hit Fox hoped for, earning about two-thirds of the original’s global gross (and less than half its domestic). As I noted, though, this was during their churn-’em-out phase, where quality was moot even with big-budget productions (Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Alien³ would also be blighted over the next few years). Chris Walas appears to have pretty much retired, and despite talking enthusiastically about the picture, seemed to have no yen to return to the director’s chair. As for future Flys, well Disney owns the “franchise” now, so expect something with a brilliant female scientist who gets her DNA mangled by an interfering man, but instead of devolving, she becomes the bestest-evah!


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