Cronenberg is one of the most sophisticated chroniclers of romance in modern cinema, and I’m surprised critics haven’t made more of this over the decades. Why? Perhaps it’s because Cronenberg deals in symbols and metaphors as well as witty dialogue and plausible behavior. It can be hard to sense the human heart beating beneath the blood and goo that engulf some of his finest adult dramas. is a rare horror film—and a rare big-budget Hollywood movie, period—that is adult in all the ways that count. I would never show it to a child, or even a young adult, not because of the sex and gore, but because they would have no way of processing the feelings it evokes. You have to have lived a bit to truly appreciate this movie, and it only becomes more powerful as you grow older.
I do realize that perhaps I don't entirely get the movie's emotional core, but that's a good thing, because I know that someday I will. The fact that I might appreciate The Fly even more down the line seems baffling given my deep love for it today. But that possibility also greatly excites me.
Amidst rising steam and whizzing sparks, a giant fly fused with chunks of metal emerges from a broken pod, while a man lies wounded nearby and a woman watches in sheer horror. The camera cuts in close to the creature and we see its massive, round looming eyes as they squint in pain. It’s almost unsettling how mournful and pitiable it looks. For a film that’s a remake of a cheesy 1958 science fiction movie—itself based on a short story that premiered in Playboy—that tells the story of a man turning into a fly, and that’s directed by the often cold and clinical David Cronenberg, it does come as a shock that The Fly is so emphatically emotional, sad, and human.
It’s the goal of many a science fiction narrative to grapple with the issue of what constitutes a person by sizing them next to things that are non-human. Because it’s a question ultimately limited to philosophical speculation, the way the question is asked takes on great importance. Perhaps just as crucial as the questions though is the idea that if a film can’t tell us what it means to be human, can it make us feel more like a human being than before we began watching it?
Though the film’s centerpoint is of scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) fusing into a fly, and though the movie itself is a triumph of direction, visual effects, performance, and efficient storytelling, it’s all in the service of Cronenberg’s fascination with the human being: what it feels, how it feels, and why it feels.
Love stories have always been great human stories because they’re about that part of humans in which ambition, money, glory, and utility are hindered by that nebulous but inexplicably powerful urge to care and feel for another—both our inner, deeper aspects and also our bodies encased in flesh. It’s no surprise then that despite its trappings as a special-effects filled science fiction thriller, The Fly is really a love story, a drama about men trying to love in childish ways and learning to love in more selfless adult ways.
In the world of The Fly, which is so limited in characters (three, plus a few bit parts) and locations that it could almost work as a stage play, there are two uniquely different men who are nevertheless dealing with love in the two aforementioned ways. First there’s the scientist Brundle, and second a magazine editor, Stathis Borans (John Getz), who is attempting to expose Brindle’s teleportation device “that’ll change the world as we know it!” Though they’re wildly different types— Borans the smug, womanizing office man and Brindle the awkward, amicable genius whose experience with girls seems equivalent to that of a prepubescent twelve-year old—they both happen to be trying to love the same woman: Veronica (played by the ravishing Geena Davis).
Davis radiates a kind of old school Hollywood charm as Veronica: As a journalist working for Borans, she’s cut-throat and crafty with a dose of sardonic wit and some Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, and as a person she’s beautiful and slyly seductive, a la the Rita Hayworth of Gilda. These qualities are brought out from the outset, when Brundle takes her to his laboratory/apartment (a big, gray building made austere by slow tracking shots that accentuate its creepy shadows and hollowness), and she playfully removes a stocking to test in his teleportation device. Then, upon realizing that Brundle is serious about his pods and that they actually work, she discreetly flips on her tape recorder in her bag and starts asking Brundle questions about his invention. Davis plays Veronica with all the confidence and playfulness she can muster. When Brundle—having learned that Veronica had a previous fling with Borans in college—asks “is he still in love with you?” she answers with an air of flippancy: “how could he not be?” It also helps that Davis stands a striking six feet tall, so whenever Cronenberg frames her with either Goldblum or Getz in tight two shots, you really sense that she can hold her own and won’t be looked down upon.
Not that Brundle is a particularly intimidating presence early on, though. When they initially meet at a science convention, Cronenberg avoids an establishing shot of them and instead starts with a medium-close-up of Brundle explaining his invention to Veronica, followed by slightly awkward reverse one-shots that highlight Brundle’s own social naivete. While Brundle somewhat desires to showcase his invention, he’s just as interested in using it as an instrument of seduction. When he later explains that his pod can only transport inanimate objects, he claims “I must not know enough about the flesh myself. I’m gonna have to learn.” Whether he picks up on the multiple implications of his words or not, we certainly do. I grin every time I see Goldblum in this movie. He speaks in the excitable rapid tone of a geek who can’t say enough about his work, but he’s also tan with lush black hair and a large, well-built physique. It’s an intriguing mixture, and it’s no wonder Veronica falls for him so quickly.
From Crash to A History of Violence, Cronenberg has always treated sex as a vital part of human interaction and he uses it as a way of investigating ideas that interest him—often dark and disturbing ones. He’s less bleak here. The physical relationship between Veronica and Brundle allows us to view her as sensitive and caring, someone who wants to give Brundle the sort of love he’s never had before. And for Brundle, it’s an ironic occurrence because just when he’s finally breaking ground with his teleporting device in which a living body can hopefully jump from one place to another, he’s encountering the very different thrill of an intimate interaction with another living body. Yes, changing the world with scientific advancement is a great, important pursuit, but what good does any greatness do if you can’t make time to simply exist with another human being?
As Cronenberg presents this dichotomy between science and love, there’s another drama that he gives a surprising amount of attention. Initially, the character of Stathis Borans seems created to be purely antagonistic. Even his name sounds like it was created for a great horrid villain. A more predictable film might keep him as the asshole who constantly pursues Veronica while attempting to use Brundle’s invention to help his own publication—like a real Harry Ellis type from Die Hard.
Early behavior—like his sneaking into Veronica’s apartment and surprising her in the shower, or his attempt to exploit the teleportation device without Brundle’s consent—certainly indicates such a type. But there’s a scene between him and Veronica in a department store that always struck me as highly unusual and also as an indicator that Borans does not allow for easy categorization. He tracks Veronica down while she’s shopping and crudely berates her over her recent romance with Brundle. In high dramatic fashion, visible to everyone in the store, he exclaims “you’re a goddess! Thank you for making my most paranoid fantasies come true!” and then kneels down to her feet, as if in an act of worship. It’s very strange, and while you could just see it as childish or comical—he’s aggressive, jealous, and a spoiled brat all at once—it also implies that he really cares for and loves Veronica deep down inside, and is petrified of the idea that she would be with another. He loves her so much that he acts out like a kid in public not getting his candy.
This is where parallel lines can begin to be drawn between him and Brundle: they’re both attempting to love, but they’re doing it in ways indicative of an adolescent mindset. Borans wants what he has lost so much that he becomes like a rash maniac whenever the possibility at getting it is threatened. Brundle wants what he has never had before, and similarly cannot handle himself when he learns that Borans is Veronica’s ex and then wrongly suspects that she’s still seeing him.
What, after all, prompts the accident resulting in Brundle’s terrifying transformation other than in a fit of jealous rage getting drunk and throwing himself into the pod, failing to notice a fly has entered with him. Rarely have I seen a film that deals with the folly of scientific ambition contain so much raw, primitive human emotion.
In all this, you feel the most sympathy for Veronica, who is like a tennis ball being whacked back and forth across a court scorching with male desire. She loves Brundle but is horrified of what he’s become, and disdains Borans but can’t escape his pursuits.
Brundle’s physical transformation is disturbing, and Cronenberg lets it slowly manifest itself like a tiny trickle of water moving across the ground: a bristle sticking from his back, then a date scene in a coffee shop where he puts spoonful after spoonful of sugar in his coffee. His voice changes to slightly higher pitch, and words leave his mouth with an excited buzz, akin to the energy of a fly zipping around your face. Then comes the copious consumption of candy bars and doughnuts. A tooth falls out, a fingernail peels off. We cringe. Soon he’s lost enough little parts of his body his medicine cabinet “is now the Brundle Museum of Natural History.” Critic Dave Kehr suggests that this an “awful parody of puberty, with Goldblum discovering mysterious hairs on his body, devouring junk food and feeling himself possessed of a strange new power and self-confidence.” This make sense, especially given just how childish Brundle appears in the early stages of his romance with Veronica. The tragedy then is that his natural progression towards emotional maturity and a greater understanding of love is thwarted by the rapid rate at which his transformation occurs.
His emotions range from creepy, to confused, to ultimately sad (that Goldblum manages to convey so many different types of behavior in the movie is astonishing). When Veronica visits him and Seth Brundle as human is nearly unrecognizable, she cries in horror and disgust as one of his ears simply falls off, like some scab. Something like this could have been campy, but Cronenberg treats it all with utter sincerity, and when he follows it with Brundle weeping and begging Veronica to help him as he hugs her, you can’t help but feel a tragic pain inside. Sort of like The Elephant Man, when we encounter the grotesque and it’s treated with conviction and skill, we’re left feeling compassion.
It’s the third act of the film in which both Brundle and Borans transition from trying to love to learning to love. With echoes of Grecian and Shakespearian tragedy, we see Borans realize the severity of Brundle’s condition and move from Veronica’s mad pursuer to her heroic protector. While his love for Veronica had previously been his weakness, now it becomes his strength, a chance to prove his worth. Brundle, the tragic victim of science-gone-wrong, clings to his last hope of maintaining any human semblance by attempting to fuse himself with Veronica with the use of a third pod.
Borans intervenes with a shotgun, destroying the pod cables just before the fusion, and we’re back to that devastating image of Brundle, now a massive fly, begging for death. Brundle never quite figured out the proper way to love, but as his massive bug eyes stare into those of the woman he’s cherished, what but love could prompt him to point the gun in the direction of his head? Given the extreme circumstances, is this not the very act of learning to love? Veronica weeps, heeding her lover’s request with a shotgun blast. Since when has a climax been so submerged in sadness?
Watching The Fly, we get overwhelmed by the amount of love that is present and how that love interacts with the grotesque. We cower at the sight of Brundle’s disgusting transformation. Humans are terrified of becoming something non-human, something non-loving. Perhaps the fact that we feel such terror only exemplifies just how loving we are. Cronenberg gets this. We don’t watch The Fly to cringe because it provides some sort of pleasure or thrill. We watch it because when we cringe as Brundle becomes The Brundlefly, we get overwhelmed with our fears and loves, our personhood.