director David Cronenberg
Thing thing that I didn’t really grasp the first time I saw David Cronenberg’s The Fly back in 1986, when it first came out was that it’s a tragic love story. My girlfriend of the time, she got it. She emerged from the theater near tears, very moved by the gory science fiction re-make. I recall being perplexed.
While some might chalk that up to a classic gender split in interpretive cinema-going, I have to say, these many years later, that she was right. It is a tragic love story. And more than likely, it is the success of the love story angle that really makes the movie so successful and such a classic in its own right. It’s a huge part of the reason the film works so well, the relationship between Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum, and the tragic crash and burn of an inspired genius.
In modernizing The Fly from its 1958 Vincent Price film, the fusion of a human and a housefly at the genetic level is an inspired revamp of a somewhat campy classic featuring a man with the hand and head for a fly, looking for the fly with the hand and head of a man. The 1986 version is a key film in what’s been termed Cronenberg’s “body horror” work, and while Cronenberg deemed it a metaphor for disease in general, it became a timely metaphor for AIDS, which rose to such public prominence at the time. After fusing with the housefly, Goldblum goes from quirky scientist nerd to superhuman to an eroding, gruesome mess, all before the eyes of his love, Davis, as the journalist covering his discoveries in transportation.
The visual effects of the putrefaction process are gross-out moments and wonderfully realized. But they are also extremely effective. When Goldblum loses an ear (it just falls off), bites off his fingernail (entirely), squirts pus from his rotting finger all over the bathroom mirror, pukes acid on his food to eat it, all of that is as shocking and effective as those types of moments and effects have ever been. And the gross-out isn’t quite like later “torture porn”. The story is about a healthy, happy adult dissolving, dissipating into horrific decay before his own eyes and the eyes of his lover.
Goldblum is terrific in the film. His twitchy, quirky scientist Seth Brundle is deftly defined, emphasizing aspects of Goldblum’s natural quirkiness. But as his person becomes less and less recognizable, his twitches, quirks, and humanness are communicated so well that the constancy of his character through his arc of dissolution remains very palpable.
Davis, who was Goldblum’s girlfriend at the time, is also very good. She’s an interestingly physical match for Goldblum, with their slightly unusual good looks, height, and big dark 1980’s hair. It’s such a cliche to talk about screen “chemistry” but indeed seems to be one of those alchemies that can make or ruin a film. This is a case of it working and making it.
The film is a tragedy, a metaphor not just of biological disease but of psychological or addiction. Because Brundlefly (Goldblum’s computer name for his new self) is not simply withering into death, he’s metamorphosing into some new being. There is the radical identity crisis to embrace or abhor himself, one in which he wants to drag others down with him, most particularly his beloved girlfriend. It is a very effecting story. Why it didn’t effect me as so much at the time might have had more to do with who I was, what I focused on as a teenager, a lack of maturity perhaps sounds a bit derisive.
My girlfriend got it. I get it now. It’s a tragic love story. A gruesome one. And an excellent movie.