Overview: A socially-awkward scientist invents teleportation pods, but upon testing the machine his DNA becomes mixed with a fly’s, resulting in a grotesque transformation. Distributed by 20th Century Fox. 1986; Rated: R; 96 minutes.
Body Horror: Before tackling The Fly, David Cronenberg had already proven himself as the master of using body horror to comment on society and the self. While the 1958 version of The Fly, based on George Langelaan’s short story, is notable for the B-movie awesomeness of sticking the head of a fly on the body of a man, Cronenberg’s take is more horrific and human. While Cronenberg has denied that the film is an intentional metaphor for AIDS, the imagery, the camera’s focus on the transfer of fluids, and the time of its release make it difficult to completely separate from the epidemic. If not AIDS, then certainly Seth Brundle’s transformation can be viewed as an allegory for disease brought on by aging and the inevitability of death.
The make-up designs by Chris Walas, are some of the best practical effects work ever produced on film. Each stage of Brundle’s transformation is a work of art that purposefully serves the ideas of the film. Brundle’s sagging flesh, his collection of teeth, and the loss of his hair and genitals are all imaginatively exaggerated depictions of the aging process. But the makeup wouldn’t truly come to life if it wasn’t for the memorable performance of Brundle by Jeff Goldblum who takes on a wonderful mix of human and inhuman qualities all while maintaining a dark sense of amusement and wonder.
Identity: Cronenberg explores ideas of male identity through Veronica’s (Geena Davis) relationship with Brundle and his foil, Stathis Borans (John Getz). The beginning of the film highlights Brundle’s delicate nature with his motion sickness and Veronica offering to carry him up the stairs. By making us aware that Brundle does not fit the stereotypical masculine ideal, Cronenberg ensures the audience will find Brundle’s transformation all the more unnatural.
In the initial stages of his transformation, Brundle becomes sexually aggressive, jealous, and tries to prove his strength in an arm wrestling contest. In many respects Brundle becomes like Stathis. When the insect part of him takes over, these traits are amplified. We see the arm wrestling in another form when the Brundlefly uses his corrosive vomit to destroy Stathis’ hand (among other things), showing Brundle’s superiority as a species. The film creates interesting parallels between society’s idea of masculinity and insect nature, suggesting an apprehension and attraction to both.
Help Me, Please Help Me: The Fly is masterful at eliciting sympathy for Brundle, even as his humanity slips away. Near the climax of the film, Brundle speaks the Kafkaesque lines: “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man, and loved it. But now that dream is over, and the insect is awake.” If the insect part of him is his desire to survive at any cost, then perhaps Cronenberg is suggesting there is a bit of insect in all of us that begins to awaken when the dream of life creeps closer to its end. Cronenberg, who rarely asks the audience to empathize with his human characters, demands empathy be found in the insect.