Written by: Charles Edward Pogue & David Cronenberg (screenplay), George Langelaan (short story)
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis and John Getz
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I'll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don't you? But you only know society's straight line about the flesh. You can't penetrate beyond society's sick, gray, fear of the flesh."
Of course it all comes down to flesh in David Cronenberg’s take on The Fly; from the beginning of his feature film career--which kicked off with him unleashing a parasite upon an apartment building in Shivers--the Canadian terror maestro has been fascinated with twisting, turning, and transforming the human body to reveal the frailty of our own humanity. Just three years before adapting George Langelaan's science-gone-wrong short story, he introduced an ironic mantra in Videodrome: “long live the new flesh,” an insistence that came at the expense of the old flesh that was shed in a cyber-surreal wasteland. With The Fly, Cronenberg delivers a more ominous message: “be afraid--be very afraid,” not only for your flesh--which is irrecoverably set to deteriorate thanks to age, disease, or your own insecurities--but also your humanity, so intertwined is it with the husk of skin that and bones that ultimately defines us and our reality.
You might say the film is deeply concerned with a man who isn’t really comfortable in his own skin. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is an eccentric scientist whose closet is full of the same suit, the artificial flesh that he wears everyday without fail. The past few years have rendered him a bit of an automaton, as he’s been working on a top-secret experiment involving teleportation. When he meets journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), it awakens in him a longing for companionship; the two begin a professional, platonic relationship that soon becomes more intimate, even though her lingering ex-boyfriend and editor (John Getz) is lingering in the picture. Meanwhile, his experiment hit’s a snag when he’s unable to transport animate objects because his computer program doesn’t “like” flesh, leading to a pointed irony: a man who is about to lose his flesh must teach the instrument of his destruction to “like” flesh and faithfully replicate it, even as he isn’t even secure in his own human interactions.
Once Brundle finally adjusts his machine, he successfully transports a baboon, but what should be a cause for celebration soon turns into a dark night of self-loathing when Veronica has to “scrape the residue” of her past relationship off of her boots. Left alone to his own world-changing device, Brundle gets drunk and performs the experiment on himself, and the result is something of a teenage fantasy. He enters one pod a gangly, awkward geek, played to eccentric perfection by Goldblum’s twitches and darting eyes; when he emerges from the other, he is a mass of pectorals with an inexplicable surge in athleticism. In his eyes, he has achieved a perfection of flesh in this teenage fantasy; in his mind, he was once inadequate compared to Veronica’s coiffed, vanity-plated, upscale ex, and that insecurity drove him to this transformation. His “new flesh” is one that hasn’t just leveled the playing field--it’s enabled him to leap the field altogether as a genetic superhuman with preternatural abilities.
What he doesn’t realize is that his fantasy is about to turn into a pubescent nightmare--he begins growing strange hair on his back and secreting a semen-like liquid from his fingers as his sexual appetite rages out of control. At the beginning of the film, his bringing Veronica to the bowels of his lair plays like a geek showing off his comic book collection; eventually, he becomes an alpha male, all primal urges and musculature. With the change in physiology comes a change in his basic humanity and psychology, as he slowly becomes more animalistic in more ways than one. Unbeknownst to him, a fly entered the telepod with him during the his experiment, and his confused computer program grafted its DNA to his own, and, thus, his flesh is set to betray him just as it begins to offer him a false salvation in his newfound confidence.
The film famously diverges from its predecessor on this point; whereas Karl Neumann’s 1958 film glossed over the transformation to ponder on the metaphysical fallout of a man losing his mind to the creature spliced to him. Cronenberg doesn’t just capture the transformation in The Fly--he and his effects team revel in it with an astonishing and devastating portrait of decay. After briefly evolving, Brundle degenerates before our eyes, his every appearance more grotesque and distorted than the last. Chris Walas’s work is an agonizing display of body horror, as Brundle’s flesh doesn’t just betray him--it completely revolts against him in a grisly transformation that unfolds during the film’s final thirty minutes. For viewers it is (among other things) revolting, an ultimate gross-out gag that unspeakably contorts humanity into something inhumane and beastly.
While the physicality of it is the film’s lasting legacy, the tragedy underpinning the “Brundlefly” presents a staggering loss in humanity and identity. The Fly features a man battling for both his body and mind as he attempts to cling to whatever humanity is left beneath the decaying husk that’s practically melting from scene to scene. The unflinching, grand-guignol display is an overpowering visual that forces you to confront the monstrous nature of Brundle’s transformation; however, it’s Goldblum and Davis’s performances that anchor the sadness surrounding it all. Goldblum finds an immediate goodness in Brundle, a motor-mouthed oddball whose sympathetic nature is the film’s lynchpin; when he first begins his transformation, it’s not the bodily changes that are appalling--it’s watching the warmth drain out of him as he becomes that jockish, sex-crazed boor. His sincerity and warmth eventually re-emerge, albeit beneath the ghastly flesh that sends him desperately clinging to some hope--he imagines that he might be able to transform himself back or, if not, that he’s serving a higher purpose to become more human than human. These are the ravings of a mind in its death throes, as the Brundlefly eventually becomes a bundle of animalistic impulses in his attempts to preserve both himself and his “family” when it’s revealed that Veronica is carrying his child.
Veronica’s reaction to all of this is similarly affecting; Davis’s chemistry with Goldblum is terrific, for one thing, and lends an air of believability to the proceedings. Her heartbreak is palpable, particularly when Brundle’s folly is passed onto her via the most primal instinct of all: sex, which is once again made twisted and squirm-inducing in Cronenberg’s hands when it becomes a conduit for further bodily horror (it’s arguable that the film’s most horrifying sequence doesn’t involve the Brundlefly at all, but its imaginary, post-abortion larvae). When taken in this context, The Fly is another venereal parable from Cronenberg and a subversion of hyper-masculinity to boot. Not only is Brundle punished for his emasculating sense of insecurity, but Veronica’s ex, too, experiences bodily mutilation. It’s interesting to note that he’s introduced as the same sort of alpha male that Brundle fleetingly becomes; by the end of the film, he has been reduced to a more sensitive human being. Perhaps Stathis Borans is a man buried beneath a monstrous, Reagan-era yuppie façade that needs to be shed; in some ways, his own manipulative jockeying for Veronica’s body (more so than her actual affections) is responsible for Brundle’s transformation.
Cronenberg himself has resisted such specific readings of The Fly, preferring it as a more general allegory for the infirmity of flesh when matched against disease or age. Such inevitability is at the heart of the film; as is usually the case in mad scientist films, the forlorn, ominous sense of doom is smothering. Brundle’s sin of tampering with perverting the order of nature--his telepod eventually becomes a mechanical womb, and one of his final acts is a desperate attempt to salvage the ultimate nuclear family--make him destined for an almost divine retribution. Fittingly, Cronenberg (with an assist from Howard Shore’s dramatic, symphonic score) directs this tale as an operatic nightmare and a gut-wrenching passion play. And like in any passion play, the flesh is expendable, in this case flayed and peeled back before being completely discarded. Once it’s completely gone, Seth Brundle’s final human impulse--a solicitation of empathy and mercy at the end of a gun-barrel--results in the ultimate destruction of both body and mind, the dream of both insect and man completely obliterated. If we could hear his cries, they would no doubt echo his predecessor’s infamously agonizing pleas for help in the original, only here it’s an unspoken cry for a merciful end to an existential crisis worthy of Kafka.
The Fly represents Cronenberg at the height of his body horror prowess; though he would continue to mangle and contort the human body, this arguably stands as his magnum opus and his most purely horrifying film on a visceral level. It’s rightfully often cited as one of the best horror remakes of all-time, but it’s more of a complete re-imagining, and a completely valid one because The Fly seemed destined for Cronenberg’s auteurist stamp. Finding a more perfect match of material and director might be impossible, and Cronenberg relished the opportunity to make this concept his own. The result is mistakably Cronenberg: a disgusting, squirmy, and smart film that leaves one with a newfound appreciation for unsullied flesh. His attempt to penetrate it or to move beyond that is Brundle's biggest folly, and society's "sick, grey fear" of it is well-founded and re-affirmed by his tragic plunge into the "plasma pool" that just spits him right back out again. Essential!
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