The Fly (1986)
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.” These quoted words from The Fly resonate beyond the film. In fact, most people likely don’t even know the origin of the quotation. Still, despite the warning, director David Cronenberg invites the audience to view something beyond horror and science
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.” These quoted words from The Fly resonate beyond the film. In fact, most people likely don’t even know the origin of the quotation. Still, despite the warning, director David Cronenberg invites the audience to view something beyond horror and science fiction. It’s not only a dramatic love story; it’s a tale of a man who connected with his humanity only to lose it by being human in all its emotional messiness.
We begin mid-conversation between scientist Seth Brundel (Jeff Goldblum) and reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) at an expo for researchers and inventors. Seth nonchalantly mentions that unlike the others, his invention will transform the world. Though she should exercise caution, Veronica is intrigued and brings back the mysterious and awkward Seth back to his place. Her doubts are soon shorn when he demonstrates his teleportation pods are not a gimmick. It’s a reality, that if publicized, would change the transportation world.
The only hiccup is that device cannot process “the flesh,” metaphorically and literally. Living material is not able to teleport successively. After Veronica helps him understand the flesh through connection, he’s able to solve the conundrum. Soon after though, this connection to another human leads to the sticky business of emotions that Seth has shut off for years. With a flare-up of anger and jealousy, he commits an error of judgement. The results are a genetic abomination and a tragedy for both.
Cronenberg’s most commercially and critically acclaimed film was surprise hit for 1986. Previous science-fiction horror remakes such as John Carpenter’s The Thing had lackluster response from both the audience and critics at the time. One would likely have predicted that the grisly fly transformation effects and dour ending would’ve dampened the box office. Instead, people praised the make-up. They also seemed to relate to the story of losing a loved one to a terminal disease, even with it wrapped in a fantastical package. The world seems to have changed much from 1982.
The relationship between Seth and Veronica is a draw for audiences, especially for those more inclined to dismiss the horror and science fiction genres as juvenile, or even worse, as junk. We don’t know what to feel when we first come across Seth. He’s not conventionally attractive per Hollywood standards, though there’s a spark of charm. He’s boastful, but his awkward nature somehow prevents this from tipping into an ugly arrogance. His behavior with Veronica when she first comes to his place would normally come across as creepy. However, he doesn’t attempt to make a first move romantically. He’s so unaware that he forgets that she came along as a journalist. He just wants to confide something important with another. His interaction with Veronica shows that he’s lived an isolated life, either by choice or social neglect.
It helps that the film sets up a scuzzy antagonist, Stathis (John Getz). This former boyfriend of Veronica and somewhat stereotypical corporate type provides the ick factor to keep us on Seth’s side. (It’s a fact in 80s movies that if you’re a professional with a beard, you’re distrustful). Though even he has a side that may prove to be a surprise to the audience, being part of the resolution to the escalating tragedy of Seth’s transformation.
Besides Cronenberg’s direction, Howard Shore’s score elevates the material beyond semi-remembered b-movie schlock. Shore pulls away from the synth soundscapes of the previous Cronenberg film Videodrome. He decides to flood the audience with an operatic-instrumental orchestration from the titles onward. Depending on the scene, the music whips our emotions from wonder of discovery to tension of frayed love to despair of biological terminus. Even though the sudden start and sharp end of the film could make the story seem like a slice-of-life narrative, the music transforms it into a 20th century tragedy. Just as in Classical Greek tragedy, where fate and the gods punish characters for their hubris, Seth is led down a similar path. It’s no wonder that the director later adapted the film into an opera.
There’s not much more that one can say about the make-up effects than already said. They are grotesque and especially in the final stage, out-of-this-world. However, Cronenberg never neglects the human element. What does that mean? We will likely never come across a man genetically spliced to a fly. However, it’s almost definite that we’ll see a friend or family member decay either due to disease or old age. It may not be as alien and dramatic a transformation as we see with Seth, but it’s a transformation from what we once knew, nonetheless.
At every stage of his change into the creature, we still see the once briefly happy and awkward man trying to poke through. Even though we know he no longer can fit with this world, we’re still sad to see the person that was Seth Brundle go. At the end, there’s still a personality within the insect.
The Fly is a cautionary tale, but the lessons are unlike that of the original 50s film. Yes, hubris in scientific endeavors may lead to unexpected, even unwanted results. This film, however, is warning that there must be a balance between technology and the heart (or the flesh). Seth is stunted socially until he meets Veronica. With her touch, he can make the final touch on his discovery. However, a life of withdrawn emotions has not prepared him when feelings break free, and he cares for an actual person. This lack of emotional control is just as harmful as living without emotion. It ends up costing Seth. The paradox is that during the journey to becoming a fly, Seth embraced more fully what it means to be human.