David Cronenberg: The Fly (1986)


David Cronenberg’s The Fly is a perfect fusion of his esoteric body horror and a more conventional romantic tragedy. It was Cronenberg’s first remake and his first major Hollywood production, and as such, it has a more conventional appeal than most of his films. That being said, The Fly is still a Cronenberg feature through and through. It examines the corrosive effects of experimentation on the mind and body and the ways that sexual awakening precipitates the growth and doom of the film’s characters. Perhaps most profoundly, it’s a tragic love story, condensing the joys, sorrows, and deaths of an entire romantic relationship into a compact 96 minutes. The Fly is a remarkable work of horror, but also Cronenberg’s most moving film. It’s one of his greatest masterpieces.

The plot follows Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle, an eccentric scientist who has invented a teleportation machine “that’ll change the world and human life as we know it.” He introduces the “telepods” to Geena Davis’s Ronnie Quaife, an attractive journalist he meets at a press event in the film’s opening minutes. He convinces her to keep his breakthrough a secret and profile him and his research for a book. Ronnie begins to document Seth’s work and difficulty perfecting the machine; although he can handily teleport inanimate objects, whenever he attempts to teleport living organisms, the machine scrambles the process and ends up killing the creature in gruesome fashion.

Soon enough, Seth and Ronnie fall in love and their sexual union precipitates a breakthrough on the development of the machine. Seth learns how to teach the computer to comprehend living flesh and gets the telepods to successfully teleport a living creature. Of course, just as Seth and Ronnie’s romance inspires his breakthrough, it also drives Seth’s downfall. Drunkenly driven by jealousy one night, Seth goes through the teleportation machine himself and accidentally fuses himself with a house fly that enters the pod with him. Unaware that he’s been fused with a fly, Seth finds himself invigorated and gifted with extraordinary strength, assuming that the teleportation process has purified him and unleashed his untapped potential. However, he soon learns about the fusion and Ronnie has to witness Seth slowly transform into a hideous fly creature, losing his humanity in the process.

In many ways, The Fly is a standard mad scientist story, exploring the same pitfalls of human hubris that have been the cornerstone of the genre since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. But it also explores the familiar figure of the Cronenberg scientist, who I’ve written about extensively in a past essay. The Fly demonstrates a progression in Cronenberg’s exploration of this figure. The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome all keep the mad scientist character as a key supporting figure, but The Fly goes one step further and transforms the mad scientist into the romantic protagonist. This allows Cronenberg to explore the same fertile territory that he’s been obsessed with exploring throughout his career, but also to marry that exploration to a personal and romantic tragedy. That Cronenberg aligns the conventional and the Cronenbergesque in one figure gives the film its immense emotional power without robbing it of its esoteric interest.

Cronenberg’s familiar playbook is evident from the first chords of Howard Shore’s remarkable score in the opening credits. He is building on the psychosexual drama of his previous films and using the plot of scientific experimentation in The Fly to explore the (d)evolution of the body and the awakening of sexual consciousness. In The Fly, Seth’s breakthrough with the telepods comes after he has sex with Ronnie for the first time. Although it’s never specified, it’s implicit that this is Seth’s first sexual experience. Thus, by linking his scientific breatkthrough with his sexual maturation, Cronenberg shows how sexual experience is essential to an understanding of human biology. Once Seth has sex, he realizes that the telepod computer “Can’t deal with the Flesh.” and connects the computer’s lack of understanding to his own: “Don’t know much about the Flesh myself. I’ll have to learn.” In this way, his sexual growth is both his success and undoing.

After more experiments, Seth realizes that “The Flesh: it should make the computer crazy.” He goes about teaching the computer to respond to organic beings in a human way and thus unlocks the ability to teleport living organic matter between the telepods. However, once Seth fuses himself with the fly, his sexual appetite grows insatiable and his quest to understand the Flesh grows into an obsession and dysfunction. In several key scenes, Cronenberg references his breakthrough feature, Shivers, to show Seth’s growing sexual psychosis and the corrosive effects of the Flesh on human stability. Seth begins to lecture Ronnie about her sexual prudishness, telling her that she “can’t penetrate beneath society’s conception of the Flesh.” As in previous films, Cronenberg explores the Freudian notion of societal sexual repression and that overcoming repression can unleash dangerous human impulses. Seth, believing that he’s unlocked some new purified way of being human, rejects social mores and goes about unleashing his sexual appetite upon the world.

As is soon demonstrated, Seth’s sexual freedom is destruction, both to himself and the world around him. During an extraordinary sequence that plays similar to the foundational moments of a superhero film, Seth goes about town unleashing his new strength and sexual appetite on others. In one of the film’s most iconic moments, he arm wrestles a tough guy in a local bar (character actor George Chuvalo) and breaks the man’s wrist in half. Later, he stands in front of the mirror to peel off his fingernails, a throwback to Shivers and the scene of Nick prodding himself in front of the mirror. If we recognize that the scene in Shivers marked Nick’s transformation into the film’s villain, we know that Seth is also embarking on the path from film’s hero to villain here. That transformation is literalized in the film’s final moments when Seth, now Brundlefly, sheds his last bits of human flesh to reveal a massive, monstrous fly creature. In response, Ronnie and her editor and former lover, Stathis Borans (a deliciously prickish John Getz), disrupt Brundlefly’s telepod process and force him to fuse with the telepod himself, becoming a manifestation of Videodrome’s New Flesh: a fusion of man and machine, creature and technology.

Thus, the transformation of Seth from human to fly to technomonster mirrors his transformation from hero to villain. It’s an example of how Cronenberg manifests the moral arc of his films through the physical growth and degeneration of his characters. It also reveals how The Fly is as much about Ronnie—who has to witness Seth’s devolution and attempt to save the man she loves from the consequences of his own prideful actions—as it is about Seth. In many ways, she’s the film’s true hero.

The fleshy experiments and thematic ramifications of these experiments are fascinating, but the true power of The Fly comes from its profound love story. Goldblum and Davis were a real life couple at the time and their chemistry is apparent from the first lines of the film. For a Cronenberg film, there’s a surprising mixture of humour and vulnerability in the opening scenes of their courtship. Ronnie is obviously the more experienced and mature figure of the two. Davis’ deadpan “I get the feeling you don’t get out much” cuts to the heart of Seth’s inexperience and emotional virginity. His earnest response, “You can tell that?” is hilarious, but also shows how harmless, almost childlike, Seth is in the opening moments. Later, as their collaboration blossoms into a romance, Seth asks her, “Is this a romance we’re having?,” again showing how naive this brilliant scientist is, having to ask her to confirm that he’s actually experiencing love because he’s never known it before.

That Seth is so vulnerable and sensitive in the early moments and so energized by his romance with Ronnie amplifies how devastating it is when their relationship turns sour. Of course, it fits the film’s tragic arc that the very thing that precipitates his scientific breakthrough—his sexual romance with Ronnie—is also the cause of his undoing. After Seth fuses with the fly, he grows aggressive and then outright hostile. He banishes Ronnie from his laboratory and takes up with Tawny (Joy Boushel), who he meets on his night out on the town. But even she isn’t able to match his rapaciousness and he’s left in a perpetual state of agitation as his body begins to break down and his mind blend with the carnal instincts of the fly.

When Ronnie finally does return to see him, she finds him using canes to support himself and gloves to hold his hands together. It’s a heartbreaking reveal, as if she returned to his laboratory to discover her lover had aged decades in the interim. He demonstrates his disgusting new way of eating—regurgitating acid from his stomach to boil down his food, which he then slurps up with a straw—but he also reveals a physically vulnerability that links the film to any depiction of aging.

Although the physical devolution of The Fly was connected to the AIDS crisis during its 1986 release, the film is more broadly about the surety of death and the degeneration of the body. Cronenberg explains that “the film is a metaphor for ageing, a compression of any love affair that goes to the end of one of the lover’s lives.” Thus, the film’s story of bodily degeneration and love’s tragic end has a broad metaphorical appeal; it works as a story about AIDS, about cancer, or simply the tragedy that is any human death in a world devoid of the afterlife, no matter how old the dying person is. If you have ever loved someone and lost someone, The Fly should strike a chord.

In fact, the ending of the film is the one of the most profoundly emotional moments in cinema and far and away the most affecting scene Cronenberg has ever done. As the Brundlefly crawls out of the telepod now fused with the other telepod, it grabs the shotgun from Ronnie’s hands and you half expect it to defend itself against her. Instead, it presses the gun to its forehead, no longer able to speak but still clearly telling her to put it out of its misery. The resulting shot, where Ronnie shoots the Brundlefly and its head explodes, is not the satisfying defeat of a villain, but the heartbreaking mercy killing of a lover. It’s the saddest moment in Cronenberg’s cinema.

Beyond its emotional power and fascinating themes, The Fly is also a ruthless narrative engine. Cronenberg skips over unnecessary narrative buildup and introduces the romantic tension between the leads and the experimental nature of the scientific focus within the first few minutes. Cronenberg has never wasted time on screen and the fact The Fly covers so much emotional and thematic ground over its short running time of 96 minutes is a testament to his efficiency as a storyteller. The film is also a savvy blending of romance and drama that doesn’t differentiate between the two halves of the film, but instead blends them. Unlike so many supposed romantic dramas, the romantic narrative between Seth and Ronnie is not a subplot that simply explores the characters, but instead, an essential aspect of the larger narrative as a whole. As I said earlier, the romance drives the science and thus the conflict of the film as a whole. The romance is essential, not complementary, which is perhaps why it registers so strongly from an emotional perspective.

It’s also impossible to end this review without discussing the remarkable special effects of Seth’s transformation into the fly. The first moment when the baboon goes through the telepod and is “turned inside out” by the malfunction in the technology gives us a taste of the disgusting body horror effects that are to come, but even with that preview, the sight of Seth scampering across the ceiling and walls of his laboratory, his face and hands transformed into lumpish red flesh, is truly shocking. The regurgitation scene, the peeling off of Seth’s fingernails and appendages, and especially the final moments, when the fully-formed Brundlefly sheds the skin of Seth and emerges to attack Ronnie and Stathis, is a masterwork of effects-driven filmmaking. Chris Walas truly deserved his Oscar for Best Make-Up.

The Fly stands alongside The Thing as the finest special effects spectacle of 1980s horror. It’s also one of Cronenberg’s greatest works of art. It shows Cronenberg continuing to develop his exploration of the mad scientist and the bodily ramifications of sexuality and experimentation, but it also has him crafting one of the most profound love stories of Hollywood cinema, one that continues to register as essential and relevant decades after its release. The Fly shows that even David Cronenberg, North American cinema’s most clinical and theoretical auteur, has a heart.

10 out of 10

The Fly (1986, US)

Directed by David Cronenberg; written by Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg, based on the short story by George Langelaan; starring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz, Joy Boushel, Leslie Carlson, George Chuvalo.