Update mid-2018: A delirious and truly tragic portrait of egomaniacal scientific rationalism, David Cronenberg’s The Fly still earns any and all comparisons to Shelley and all others who have traced the contours of modernity in the Dark Romantic tradition, from the summit of intoxication all the way to the pit of self-inflicted abjection.
David Cronenberg has made a career out of abstracting science fiction and horror even as he corrodes it through pure, grotesque, bodily flesh. He produces cautionary tales about humanity rooted in oppressive, caterwauling imagery, films that directly appeal to the unconscious rather than the rational. What his films lack in traditional narrative, they often make up for in a wild-eyed aura of bodily mutation and a dense shroud of omnipresent atmosphere that strangles us and arouses monstrous life in his world.
However, even within his not unimpressive library of feature films which includes the likes of The Dead Zone and Videodrome, he has never made a film as fascinating, as horrifying, as tragic, and as earth-shattering as The Fly. It may, in fact, sacrifice some of his trademark psychological affect, but the sacrifice gives way to a grand, Shakespearean theater in one of the great movie romantic tragedies. It slowly develops its characters and builds an air of ominous dread intermixed with a playful energy that simultaneously captures the mirth of romance intermixed with the fleet, effervescent joy of superhuman ability and the impending, hyper-consciously classical realization that this love is not to be. The Fly burrows under our skin, giving us characters we care about and then crushing them under the weight of the world, and the weight of themselves. There is a caustic grossness to the film, but it is married, more than ever in Cronenberg’s canon, to a wailing sense of hopeless, even Gothic, doom and tragedy. Cronenberg mutates the human body to cocky results, but he also mutates his cinema into a lingering plea for emotional connection in a hustling capitalist world ever-shrouded in the forward thrust of personal career drives.
And it all begins with Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a fairly eccentric scientist who is on the cusp of what is arguably one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time: he has developed a device which can transport matter through thin air. Veronica Quaife (Genna Davis), a news reporter for Particle magazine, reluctantly agrees to follow him home from a party held by the company financing Brundle’s scientific endeavor. Naturally, she wants to witness her story first-hand. Maybe it’ll be her big breakthrough, or at the very least a laugh. Upon arriving, she discovers in amazement what his invention is capable of, however she also learns that it’s unfortunately incapable of transmitting organic life. After a failed teleportation experiment involving a baboon, modifications are made that result in the device’s seeming success – it teleports organic matter unaltered. Anxious to see the results on a human subject, Brundle uses himself as a test subject, only to emerge unscathed and seemingly much improved. He finds himself stronger and more sexually potent at first, hopped up on his own ego and power. But this is a Cronenberg film after all. This can’t be all there is to it?
The Fly works for a number of reasons. First of all, and most importantly: its conscious, pointedly slow, and even droll, pacing, with an air of unexpected mordant elegy rather than boisterous, brazen loopiness. The Fly begins with an intentional shrug, stimulating an undeniable momentum as characters conjoin and we engage in all manner of dialectic tension about the eternal existential crisis of their futures. Cronenberg is waiting to pull the rug out from under us, and it’s particularly skewering because we know exactly what he’s up to before he does it – the film makes no bones about its slow descent into decay, enhancing suspense not through keeping us guessing but through suffocating us with what we know, making us hold our breath until the film’s final exasperated, pitiless gasp.
And, of course, the film’s superb technical qualifications are much more than mere “effects”; as in John Carpenter’s The Thing, they rattle the brain and dig into some deep, forgotten corner of the stomach, churning and disrupting the bowels. The Oscar-winning effects and the make-up work done for The Fly are key to the characterization of Seth and to the believability of his grunge-operatic malformation. Brundle’s transformation warps through not only wicked guises but a flotilla of phyla of animalistic phases of increasing irrationality, all of which implicitly skewer the assumption that his benign scientific desire was always rooted exclusively in dispassionate scientific rationality (or that rationalism can ever be truly dispassionate). Cronenberg takes his time and renders the transformation through grimy detail, constructing effects that approximate a chaotic, garish feast of all the naughtiest bits of human aging. Everything is practical, and intricately constructed to subvert human into monster and blend the two, a blending that serves the narrative purpose, in true horror fashion, of making us question whether Seth was truly a monster all along. When the titular character, fully transformed, performs one final act of mercy and self-sacrifice, we see in it a humility and humanity that Seth in his self-contentedness never secreted.
This is the rare horror film that does not hate its characters, nor does it judge them. The main relationship plays like classic left-field Hollywood, the product of a Howard Hawks or a Preston Sturges, with no small touch of screwball comedy and Hawskian overlapping sound to incarnate the push-pull chaos of romantic bliss. It’s weird, caustic, charmingly self-vilifying, warm, tender, obstreperous, baleful, and a grab-bag of other descriptors. We get a full build-up for Seth and Veronica before Seth begins to transform into a malformation of his previous self, until physical malignancy warps into emotional malignancy.
But there’s a fundamental crisis: it is, after all, science, and the thrill of possibility, that brings them together as much as it is science that tears them apart, an eternal tragedy that sees The Fly as a study of existential human character and a continuation of classic works of the genre such as Frankenstein, which shares this film’s slowly mounting, inevitable dread and meditation on the human mastery of the fantastical to the point of rendering it mundane. The horror comes not from fantasy but from a deep, terrifying understanding that humanity entails existential possibility. And it comes from an uneasy understanding that ten out of ten times humanity will accept the possibility of undoing itself.
In depicting just about any on-screen relationship or character transformation, performances are key. Luckily, Jeff Goldblum is a revelation as Brundle, conveying the appropriate mix of social awkwardness, eccentricity, batty sympathy, cockiness, and slanted humor necessary to develop Brundle into a truly compelling lead figure and to vest the audience’s sympathy with him. Even more importantly, his chaotic bug-eyed passion cheerily married to laconic distaste and, above all, his glowing, radiant in-human sense of diction and theatrical dramatics are perfect for rendering Brundle never-quite-human. He’s a mess of a person, equal parts unobservant loner and obvious snake-oil salesman, and few performers capture chaotic, self-destructive, often theatrical, heaving masses of cognitive dissonance masquerading as people like Goldblum. Later, as the evolving Brundlefly, he displays even further eccentricity and makes unfettered, necromantic use of his entire body to convey the creature’s weary confusion – furthering his often non-realistic style of borderline anti-acting and his lop-sided, un-sympathetic, even “alien-like” performance work to create a character who is struggling with its humanity rather than sure of it.
Not to be outdone, Geena Davis (whom Goldblum would marry the year after The Fly was released), gives a strong performance as the emotionally affected lover and ultimately capable but conflicted protagonist of the film. She’s in some ways as conflicted as Brundle, undeniably fascinated by his existence and his male ego-trip even as she’s turned away by his oppressive self-centeredness and his perpetual self-destruction. There’s an aura of self-destructive enervation to her performance as well, as though she’s lived for too long without excitement and can’t help but become involved here – she, like he, lives on the edge of society. But she wants to do better – she wants to meet the edge of herself, and she may never come back.
Cronenberg, by this point on his way to a long and fruitful, if messy and uneven, career, would never again wrap his cinema of physical mutation in emotional and mental metamorphosis quite like The Fly, nor would he elevate his body-horror to such prodigious Shakespearean heights. Like Shakespeare, the drama of The Fly is surprisingly universal – the obvious “man’s hubris” is present and accounted for, but so too is age and disease, two things intractably linked to Cronenberg’s penchant for playing with and effacing the human body and his wild-eyed refraction of humanity’s ever-mortal fear of physical alienation from their own body. And, when the lovers’ burgeoning relationship unfurls against the friction of the bodily and mental discomfort, Cronenberg’s film also laments alienation from one’s own body as channel to alienation from each other. His films tend to veer toward the ambiguous and intellectual, but here he’s refreshingly direct in a film that, excepting the raw goop of it all, feels like Frank Capra was hired by Universal to direct a Frankenstein movie (It’s a Wonderful Life would be a rather morbidly funny title actually). It is in a way the best kind of genre film: one that embraces its genre, giving us all the conventions and tropes we expect in homage to the long tradition of classic monster movies, but which also exceeds the grasp of what is typically associated with the genre and breathes new life into it by reading it past itself to its true core of human tragedy and mis-communication. The Fly is an umooring chiller, a thought-provoking cautionary tale, and an emotionally impactful romance of timeless proportions. It’s also a hell of a film, mutated physicality warped to chilling emotional gigantism that recalls, in its melodramatic caliber, a descent into lost love and lost cinema.
Score: 10/10 (score edited)