1986, AIDS, body horror, camp, Canadian, Charles Edward Pogue, David cronenberg, death, disease, Geena Davis, George Langelaan, gore, horror, jeff goldblum, John Getz, science fiction, The Fly, thriller, throwback, woody allen
Written by: Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg, based on a story by George Langelaan
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz
The early body horror films of David Cronenberg are among some of the most satisfying and revolting films ever made. Filled with images of weird fleshy growths, phallic appendages and gooey pus, these films are revolting and bizarre. None make the body fears more intimate than his 1986 science fiction heartbreaker The Fly, which evokes the terror and tragedy of being locked within the constraints of human mortality.
Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a scientist, he meets Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) at a gala and invites her back to his lab to see how he is going to change the world. He has made teleportation a reality, and he is only a few steps away from being able to fully transport living things, and she is a journalist for Particle magazine who can’t believe her luck. Seth begs her not to publish her story prematurely, and as an incentive offers her the chance to follow his entire process and instead publish an exclusive book. The two begin a relationship and Seth seems stirred to work harder by her support and companionship. One night, after Veronica leaves at the worst time to handle her ex-boyfriend (and editor of Particle), Seth gets drunk and decides it’s time to put himself through the telepods. He doesn’t do this with any amount of scientific precision or certainty, and ends up teleporting with a fly that got into the pod, and the computer, confused, splices their DNA; Seth emerges a slowly mutating man.
Of course, Seth knows nothing of the fly and at first his mutations manifest as newfound strength and keen senses, he explains to Veronica that by teleporting he has been purified like coffee through a filter. Seth becomes growingly agitated, enormously energetic, sexually insatiable and intellectually manic (interesting side note: a scene in a café in which Seth excitedly explains his new theories, though intended as unsettling, could easily be a scene in a Woody Allen film).Eventually it becomes clear that Seth is not getting stronger, he is being slowly consumed by his new insect DNA.
Much has been made of this story as an extended metaphor for AIDS, especially upon its release in 1986, and the similarities are clear. But it is not the parallels with AIDS specifically that grab my attention every time I watch The Fly, it’s the way Cronenberg constructs body fear that makes the film such a marvel for me. There is something unsettling about the vulnerability of the human body, the unpredictable nature of illness, the tragedy of decay and the ticking clock of death. Seth is a truly Platonic being, devoting his life to intellectual pursuits and largely neglecting his body beyond basic sustenance. He wears the same outfit everyday so he doesn’t waste any thought on what to wear, a trick learned from Einstein. He’s comfortable here. He takes no risks so he’s in no danger. Emotionally bolstered by the arrival of Veronica, Seth gets risky and reckless and his venture into the world of the physical destroys him, he moults and rots and becomes a monster, unable to control his physical urges. Cronenberg revels in all this, he savours the slow reveal of Seth’s transformation and makes the audience squirm as all our worst neurotic nightmares come true. His body is revolting, and Seth can’t stop it.
Make-up effects by Chris Walas are visceral and nauseating. Body parts melt, ooze, pulsate, drip, crumble and fall off. It’s horrible to watch Seth slowly mutate into Brundlefly, beginning with a few hairs on his back and pockmarks on his face and ending up as a horrible man-sized insect monster. There’s a sadness in watching this happen as Veronica (and the audience) know what is happening to Seth long before he does, it is just as gruesome to watch him champion the new flesh as it is to watch him become the new flesh. Goldblum dominated the film with his career-making performance as Seth Brundle, and his sweeping emotional behaviour feels so organic it’s just a spectacle to watch Goldblum at work.
What I love about Cronenberg’s work is the ease with which he fuses gruesome gore and camp horror with intelligent considerations of the human condition. I also adore the aesthetic of these early Cronenberg films, the way that the gore looks so strange and real, it’s an aesthetic that haunts me and informs my own discomforts with the vulnerability of the body. The Fly is perhaps the tightest of this period of his films and one of the most affecting science fiction films of all time.