David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” is based loosely on the 1958 film of the same name and stars Jeff Goldblum as eccentric inventor Seth Brundle and Geena Davis as journalist love interest Veronica. Trying out his life’s work, a 'teleporter' still in its developmental stage, Brundle accidently merges his DNA with that of a fly. The growing humanity of Brundle through the traditional boy meets girl romance is perfectly balanced with the simultaneous physical breakdown of his human body. Blossoming, development and expansion walk side by side with decay, deterioration and degeneration.
When The Fly was released in 1986 critics were quick to spot the metaphor for AIDS. Almost thirty years later our attitudes towards HIV are thankfully less hysterical yet the film still has much to say to those who have helplessly watched the physical or mental decline of a loved one. Strip away the special effects, the quirky performances and the mad science and this is a film about a man who has a disease and the lover who watches him die.
As Brundle transforms, Veronica is at first excited and exhilarated until she realises something is very wrong. She is then hopeful of a cure and finally faces the realisation that things will not get any better. It’s the hope which is the most painful and most poignantly strikes a chord with those who have watched a developing addiction or mental illness. Cronenberg acknowledged the AIDS parallel but stated that, for him, the film was about the inevitability of aging and dying. He does however, compare the scene in which a manic Brundle continually pours sugar into his coffee with the behaviour of someone under the influence of cocaine (this was the year new laws were passed specifically referencing cocaine as part of Reagan’s “War on Drugs”). Brundle makes his fatal decision to teleport whilst intoxicated by alcohol. As an aside, for a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ play on the social mores around alcohol watch Hitchcock’s The Birds where alcohol is absent when it should be there and abundant when it shouldn’t be.
This is Cronenberg’s most commercially successful film to date and it is certainly his most accessible. The film itself is almost a mirror for the palimpsest that is Brundle. On the surface it is a horror film that has everything fans of the genre expect. Beneath this surface is a more painful and challenging story.
Cronenberg is a little cannier then other ‘Body Horror’ director; as well as playing on our fear of physical disintegration he also considers physical integration and enmeshment. Bodies merge both sexually and literally. Veronica discovers she is pregnant not knowing if the child inside her own body is human or ‘Brundlefly’. Brundle’s final solution is to merge the DNA of all three of them together to make the “ultimate family” (this is prefigured with several triangles throughout the film). This highlights the push and pull of the conflicting impulses to be separate from, but together with, our fellow humans which are both impulses necessary for survival. Are we unique as individuals or little more than a product of the society in which we live? The pity we feel for the baboon is raw yet our reaction to Brundle’s plight is more intellectual. We view the film through Veronica’s eyes as Brundle’s point of view is one too painful to consider. Cronenberg stated he did not think a film about someone dying would have had the same impact without the gauze of science fiction and horror. Cinema Revisited is usually suitably disapproving of directors who “dumb down” but in the case of The Fly it’s a shame that Cronenberg has never quite manage to connect with viewers in the same way since. He takes a tried and tested genre and formula and underpins it with the inevitability of our physical, putrid, decomposition. This true horror sneaks into our experience beneath our noticing at first, like the fly in the teleporter, and we are transformed.