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After 35 years, The Fly remains David Cronenberg’s magnum opus: grotesque, romantic and tragic beyond compare. ‘Be afraid, be very afraid.’
On paper, it’s a genre gimmick, one that’s even been parodied by The Simpsons: a man steps into a teleportation pod, unknowingly accompanied by a fly, and a body-horror nightmare ensues.
Perhaps its simplicity is why The Fly is still Cronenberg’s most commercially successful picture, grossing more than $60 million against a $9 million budget, yet still equipped with the no-holds-barred, gloopy, stretching, spurting viscera synonymous with the director’s oeuvre. Then, there’s the small matter of it being a genuine masterpiece.
Based on George Langelaan’s 1957 short story and a remake of the 1958 movie, The Fly is the only film directed by Cronenberg to receive an Oscar (for its special effects, obviously).
Riding on Howard Shore’s operatic score, the film emerges through kaleidoscopic swirling. Much like its eponymous insect, there isn’t on ounce of fat in Cronenberg’s storytelling; we’re thrown straight into the quirky, spiky sexual tension of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), an introverted, charismatic scientist with all the charm of a magician, and Ronnie Quaife (Geene Davis), a reporter for Particle magazine.
He believes he’s created something that’ll ‘change the world as we know it’, but she’s unconvinced – until she sees the tele-pods in action with her stocking. Together, they embark on a journey to document the advent of technology that will make all notions of transport, time and space obsolete, with the nearby watchful eye of Stathis Borans (John Getz), Ronnie’s slimy ex and editor.
It all goes Pete Tong when Ronnie has to quell one of Stathis’s threats as she’s about to celebrate the live teleportation of a baboon with Seth. Holding a bottle of champers, lovesick and jealous, he descends into a hole – and steps into a pod, unwittingly going through with a fly and accidentally splicing with it at a molecular level. Brundlefly begins here.
There is a dark glee in Cronenberg’s moves: Ronnie watching Seth’s late-night, sweaty acrobatics in awe; his spiritual kinship with True Romance‘s Clarence in sugar; one of its most infamous moments with Seth snapping a man’s wrist while arm-wrestling for a bet (and the night with a random woman); and Seth telling her he ‘builds bodies’, like Patrick Bateman’s ‘murders and executions mostly’.
The plasma pool’s depths only go deeper: insatiable sexual appetite; erratic and irritable mood swings; sensitive skin to the touch; coarse hairs; and soon, gruesome changes to his body, whether it’s loose finger nails, pus shooting out his body, ears peeling off, teeth falling out and vomiting acid to swallow food. ‘Oh, that’s disgusting.’
Morbid curiosity makes it all rather compelling, but with the director’s craft and grip on character development, there’s a distinct layer of sadness. Something as simple as Seth underplaying his genius, or showing genuine remorse at the loss of an inside-out baboon. His quiet musings, ‘Is this how it starts? Am I dying?’
In the film’s climactic act, Goldblum delivers one of its most heart-breaking monologues:
You have to leave now and never come back here. Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects don’t have politics. They’re very brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first insect politician. You see, I’d like to, but, I’m afraid, uh… I’m saying… I’m saying, I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over and the insect is awake. I’m saying… I’ll hurt you if you stay.’
At its core, The Fly is a doomed love story. Seth and Ronnie are a believable pairing with undeniable chemistry, and his triumph is undone by a current of emotions we’ve all felt; when you order that extra drink, send that text you shouldn’t, make that misguided call. In this case, he lost himself to his own brilliance.
As Shore’s score booms, and Brundlefly’s devastating final form crawls to a weeping Ronnie, armed with a gun she can’t face to shoot, it’s already hard to fight back the tears. Then, he picks it up with his bloodied appendage and points it to his head. Even through multiple teleports, suffering unimaginable pain, becoming unrecognisable to himself and the world, his last shred of humanity asked for one thing, ‘Kill me.’
The bleakness (and recoiling immediacy) of its ending aside, affecting as its love story may be, there’s more to The Fly’s despair. Not dissimilar to Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winner The Father, or M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, there’s something raw in the horror of losing oneself to illness (even if it’s turning into an insect).
Ronnie clutches onto Seth’s soul while he tries to see the bright side of changing, even into disrepair. ‘Most people would give anything to be turned into something else,’ he says. There’s a universality to this fear, given we can’t avoid it; whether we’re decrepit or senile, we have to rely on the kindness of our loved ones, even if we don’t have love to give.
At the time of its release, Cronenberg was surprised to hear it being viewed as a metaphor for AIDS. ‘If you, or your lover, has AIDS, you watch that film and of course you’ll see AIDS in it, but you don’t have to have that experience to respond emotionally to the movie and I think that’s really its power,’ he said.
‘This is not to say that AIDS didn’t have an incredible impact on everyone and, of course, after a certain point, people were seeing AIDS stories everywhere, so I don’t take any offense that people see that in my movie. For me though, there was something about The Fly story that was much more universal: aging and death – something all of us have to deal with.’
Sorrow isn’t an uncommon thread in horror: The Others, The Orphanage, Hereditary and The Mist – god, The Mist – are all prime examples. The Fly is the most seamless and sneaky of all; a visceral feast and shot to the heart.
The Fly is available to stream on Disney+.
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