by Adam Ferenz
August 15, 1986. 96 minutes. Written by Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg. Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz.
Director David Cronenberg’s reworking of the 1950s B-classic, The Fly, is a tale for the times, at once a straight body horror, yet infused with themes that are very modern. There is a sense of isolation, of dread, and infection, which is ever present. The story is about a man who loses his humanity because of his obsession, because of a plot in which an advanced genetic experiment goes very wrong. The film, as it unfolds, appears to at first be a morality play about not messing with the delicate balance of nature, but is instead a meditation on choice, consequence and chance. In this sense, it can be viewed as a warning, or an examination, about behaviors, in particular, sexual conduct.
The film itself is technically superb, with the makeup being a legendary achievement which has lost none of its potency in now thirty years of release. The acting is very effective, with Goldblum perfecting the role he has continued to play for the rest of his career. He was never better than this film. Neither was Geena Davis, who runs the emotional gamut, as does John Getz as Stathis Borans, Veronica’s ex. A note must also be made of the sets, in particular the telepods, Seth Brundles’s invention, which have an almost amniotic sac shape, merged with the design of a honey dipper. The photography is kept dark but not poorly lit, a world of shadows that never lacks clarity, with the film almost all in medium range. When the film changes to close-ups or long shots, it is very noticeable. What this achieves is a sense of a very controlled yet dangerous world.
The Fly concerns the story of Seth Brundle, a brilliant scientist who has built a teleporter. The problem, as he explains to Veronica, the journalist he brings to his home and laboratory, and who becomes his lover, is that he can only transport inanimate objects. “The machine doesn’t understand the flesh” as he explains it. An experiment with a baboon results in the animal being turned inside out, while one with a steak results in Veronica remarking it as inedible because it “tastes synthetic” to which Seth realizes that the machine can only reassemble what it thinks of “as an impression of the flesh” and begins work on modifying the program. This results in a baboon being safely teleported. This push and pull between real and synthetic will continue as a theme to the final frame, as the experiment spirals out of control
This success with the baboon is not to last, however, as Veronica’s ex-boyfriend, who is also her editor, has become jealous of her closeness to Seth. One night, after seeing the mockup cover that the ex has made for the next issue of his magazine, a cover which would reveal Seth’s work far too soon for his comfort or those of his financial backers, and which goes back on his word of holding off until they were ready, Veronica leaves to deal with the matter. Seth, misunderstanding this, believes she has gone back to him and decides to put himself through the process, while she is gone. This is a resounding success. Except that a single house fly found its way into the telepod. Chance, as always, interferes.
Brundle immediately begins feeling energized, and his sexual prowess tires out Veronica, who notices some odd hairs growing on his back. Taking these to a lab, she is startled when informed they are not human, nor animal or reptile. This is much like the fears one has about a partner with a sexual disease, a theme the film will return to as it progresses. At this point, Seth has becoming increasingly erratic, and his appearance is no longer healthy. He has just finished having sex with a woman he “won” at a bar, after breaking another man’s arm in half-indeed, he snapped the man’s bone straight through his skin-when Veronica arrives to tell him what the results of the test were. Brundle throws her out, but is concerned enough, given his altered appearance and, according to Veronica, aroma, that he runs a diagnostic on the process-one Veronica had refused to take-and discovers that a fly had entered, and the machine had fused the two at a genetic level.
As Seth evolves into a fly, he loses his body parts, eats through an acidic “vomit drop” which dissolves matter before he consumes it, and gains the ability to walk on walls and ceilings. This mirrors the changes one has during extreme cases of conditions such as AIDS and Necrosis. Seth tells shows this all to Veronica, who is devastated and frightened. This is compounded when she learns she is pregnant and, after a nightmare in which she imagines giving birth to a maggot, she arranges with her ex to have an abortion, but is stopped by Seth, who abducts her back to his lab. The ex pursues, with a shot gun, which Seth easily knocks out of his hands, before dissolving one of his hands and ankles with his vomit drop.
Veronica gets Seth to stop, but pulls away from him after learning he plans to take her, the baby and himself through a three pod routine in which they will fuse into one being. During the struggle, she rips his face off and he quickly finishes his evolution into a humanoid fly, which sticks in her one telepod. The ex, however, regains consciousness and manages to shoot the power cords, and free Veronica, enraging Seth, who emerges from his own telepod just as the teleportation begins. When he emerges from his destination, he is fused with part of the pod, and, with a last moment of recognition, pulls the gun Veronica is holding on him, to her temple, and encourages her to shoot. She does, ending his life, and the film.
It is important to have this synopsis, because without it the following analysis would make little sense, because the film works on how the big ideas and the details blend into what Murnau would have called a symphony of horror. Through Seth’s loss of body parts, his declining health and eventual evolution into the humanoid fly creature, the audience is exposed to issues of identity relating almost exclusively to the physical. Yet, the behavioral changes that accompany the transformation are no less important. As Seth tells Veronica in a late scene “have you ever heard of Insect Politics? That’s because insects don’t have politics. They are brutal” he is telling her that these physical changes are affecting his mind, as well, and he can feel his humanity slipping from him.
The sequence in which they eat the meat that has been transmitted is a clue to what the film is about, and it is that our person is a construct. That we have the person we are, and the person we could be, and the one that others make of us. Deciding which is real is the true statement of what we are. In this moment, Seth decides to be a scientist and an experiment, and Veronica becomes a mere observer, no longer a direct participant. It is here that Seth’s humanity begins to change, even before his genetic alteration because of the fly.
It is this alteration which greatly alarms Veronica’s ex, who is rightly concerned at the danger Seth poses. While he is a priggish man, unkind and self-centered, too controlling of Veronica’s personal life, he truly has her well-being in mind and the final struggle, between him, Seth and Veronica, can be viewed as a struggle between man and insect, compassion and logic, need and desire. That both men contain both sides, and that Veronica must navigate between the two, speaks to what the film is interested in, which is discussing what ultimately makes us human. In the end, it is our choices that define us.
The choices Seth and Veronica make throughout the film tells us a lot about the habits of humans in relation to one another. Veronica’s fear of birthing a mutant child, and Seth’s decaying condition, allude to sexually transmitted diseases, namely HIV, and the consequences thereof. It speaks also to legacy, and fears of the Other. There is also, as a consequence, elements of isolation, because of Othering. The film remembers it is a horror film, and uses these real world concerns in a manner that brings forth the most primal fears of our subconscious. This is especially true when we witness the damage Seth inflicts on others, and when we watch him transform into the fly, loosing, to our eyes, the last of his humanity. That we respond like this at all, speaks to how we connect what we see to how we respond to others. We discount that which is different, and often fear it.
In this case, it is a monster, but it is the monster inside us, the one that lurks deep within ourselves. It is the tension between the flesh and the rest of the world, between reality and fantasy. The consequences of rash decisions, of selfishness and of jealousy, drive these characters to bitter ends. There is a compulsion, much like the sexual impulse itself, for each of these three characters, to behave as they do. As with that impulse, there are moments they could control themselves, and do not, resulting in dire consequences. Here, the mind and the body are at odds with one another, with the effect of the body being destroyed. Seth’s end is as he described, a kind of cancer, which eats away until nothing is left of original intent except the faintest glimmer, by which point, it is too late.
The Fly works because it isn’t simply a horror or science fiction film. Not that either genre, or both combined, are inherently inferior to others. Rather, this is because, at the end, the film uses its genres, as the best films always do, to explore themes. The Fly does this in often visceral ways, inviting viewers to feel repulsed along with its characters. The film taps into basic fears of change, of difference, and does so brilliantly. It is difficult to find fault with the film in its ideas, its demonstration of themes or its execution of action and performance. This is about as close to perfection, outside of perhaps John Carpenter’s The Thing, that body horror has ever come. While it may be too late for Seth, it is not too late for the audience, who can leave the viewing having encountered some of the most brilliant explorations of self in a genre picture.