Let’s get it out there: The Fly, David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake, is gross. But then, you knew that, both from pop culture legends about it’s grossness and also because David Cronenberg couldn’t knit a sweater without incorporating the most sordid and hideous elements of The Body Grotesque. His entire body of work (HA!) has been informed by this theme, that no social or psychological horror is as horrific as that of the biological processes of the body.
One thing that isn’t made enough of in discussion of the film is the pure genius it took to take Jeff Goldblum and make him unattractive.
Because towards the end, Ye Gods.
Between the suppurating pustules, nodules, weird bristles, slime, hair loss, tumors, nightmarish eating habits (like a real fly, he barfs a powerful digestive enzyme on his food before consuming it) and general overall grossness of his physiological changes, he has gone from a delicious muffin to a nightmarish morsel of roadkill.
If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, here’s the story in a nutshell: Seth Brundle (Goldblum) is a shut-in mad scientist working on a device that can teleport matter, Wonka-style, by breaking the object down to the elements of its DNA and then reassembling it on the other side of the room. He can do inanimate objects, but anything alive gets–well, turned inside out. He meets science journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) and takes her back to his big weird loft in order to impress her. They begin a relationship (despite Veronica’s boss and ex-lover, a childish, pedantic man with the bizarre name of Stathis Borans throwing fits at her constantly) and it is after some hot sexy time that Brundle realizes what’s missing from his science stuff: the computer doesn’t understand flesh.
After reprogramming it, he successfully teleports his test baboon and the two are thrilled. Then, after a lover’s spat where she leaves, he gets drunk and decides to teleport himself, just To Show Her. Unfortunately, a fly gets into the telepod with him.
At first, he feels great. He feels purified, remade, and performs startling feats of gymnastic strength and rocks Veronica’s world All Night Long, over and over again until she’s plumb worn out. When she can’t keep up with the New Improved Brundle, he tries to force her to teleport, insisting she’ll be New and Improved too, and thus able to keep up with him sexually. Distressed by his New Improved Manic state, she leaves again, and things go downhill for Brundle from there.
Various cinematic pundits point to this transformation as symbolic of a few different things: the horrors of drug addiction, as in how Brundle tries to force Veronica to experience teleportation herself, insisting it’s the ultimate rush and then dumping her when she ‘can’t keep up’; the aging process and mortality (hairs in weird places! Pustules where there were no pustules before!) ; and the withering ignobility of dealing with a terminal disease. Some specifically cite AIDS as an inspiration, but that read seems a little too specific–after all, the interpretation lies in the interpreter, and if one thing doesn’t mean different things to different viewers then it’s not a symbol, it’s an explicit sign.
Another interpretation could be about the changes people undergo in relationships; stay with someone long enough and you won’t be the same people you were at the beginning. In Brundlefly’s case, that is quite literally the truth, as his bathroom cabinet collection of lost body parts illustrates.
Yeah, his dick fell off. Cronenberg may be a genius, but he still managed to work a dick joke in, even if you blink and miss it.
Things don’t go too great for Veronica either–a nightmare sequence at an abortion clinic was the only thing about the movie I clearly remembered from the first time I saw it, in 1993 or so. Let’s just say Cronenberg’s grasp of body horror isn’t just limited to male functions.
Since Brundlefly’s gradual loss of humanity is the heart of the story, Davis acts as a compassionate observer to his gruesome transformation. Even at his most loathsome, we are able to see Brundlefly at least a little bit as he once was, and not as the walking, oozing cold sore he is, completely due to her willingness to see and interact with him. One of the most horrific moments for me is when she visits Brunflefly at about stage 2 of his change, pictured above, and still will not only see him as someone worth saving, but will embrace him as someone who is terrified at what’s happening to him.
That basic element of human compassion takes a film that could have just been about the grossout and elevates it to a beautiful examination of the gradual disintegration of their relationship. Although in Brundlefly’s case, he’s less disintegrating than integrating an external part into himself–the fly and its strange, primal view of the world.
The Fly is named on many ‘Best Of’ science fiction and horror lists, and there was some buzz (HA!) that Goldblum would be nominated for an Oscar–alas. They could have used his ‘barfing on donuts’ footage! Oscar magic, right there.
The Fly is available on Instant Watch. I have to say if you’re going to watch it you ought to know what you’re getting into–and for heaven’s sake, don’t eat while you’re watching it!