I’m surprised by all the praise for David Croneberg’s recent films: Spider is an utterly predictable, by-the-numbers psychological thriller, and A History of Violence is a lame and unnecessary attempt at politicizing how awful violence is. For my money, Cronenberg was at his ballsiest with The Fly, his first (and, for what it’s worth, only) high-profile studio project. More than likely, Cronenberg could’ve coasted by with a lame story and a cheap fly head prosthetic and probably still made money for Fox, but instead he gave the unsuspecting public a completely unapologetic, biologically realistic, and purely entertaining film about the horrors of technology and human physicality.
Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), reclusive scientist with a never-changing wardrobe, meets hot chick reporter Veronica (Geena Davis) who desperately wants to cover the final stages of his teleportation experiments. They fall for each other, the teleportation doesn’t go so well, and one mutilated test baboon later, Brundle’s DNA has merged with that of a fly, creating a slow physical (and mental) dissolve for Brundle, and a similar predicament for his relationship with Veronica. In the midst of their burgeoning relationship is Veronica’s jealous editor/ex-boyfriend, Stathis (a stunningly jerky John “The Beard” Getz), and a really bad arm wrestler at a local bar.
Movies like The Fly exist mainly for the audience to revel in the deterioration of the protagonist, or at least that’s what gets people in the door. But an hour-and-a-half of decomposition isn’t terribly interesting, is it? Which is why a love interest is imperative, no matter how cliché. Thankfully, Cronenberg and co-scripter Charles Pogue understand that watching the lead character decay and then cleanly recover and return to romantic normality is implausible as well as unreasonable. From the very beginning, this project had “bad idea” written all over it, and I must say, the writers more then pull off an amazing feat – for a movie that basically amounts to ninety minutes of a guy puking and losing body parts, The Fly is exceptionally engaging. This is mainly because the characters have legitimate, sympathetic predicaments, and the narrative is full of unpredictable set-ups and payoffs.
Once Brundle begins his transformation, he goes from asocial geek to uncontrollable, virile hedonist. Never once does he consider his severe acne and ejaculating, nail-less fingers to be conditions in need of “fixing.” In fact, he doesn’t seem to recognize how repellant he’s becoming at all. After a bit of gross-out fun (including an incredible scene in which a crippled Brundle shows Veronica his alternate method to eating snack food, like flies do), the narrative brashly switches gears: The Fly is the only major studio film I can think of where, in the middle of the movie, the protagonist becomes the antagonist, and a secondary character takes over as the lead. As Brundle moves in to the later stages of mental and physical erosion, the focus pivots to Veronica and her ridding the world of every last diseased remnant of her once-brilliant beau. And it works beautifully. We want to see a monster (and boy do we get one), but we also want a sympathetic protagonist, and we’re not going to get that in a murderous fly-man.
It’s also worth pointing out that, while definitely one of the most disgusting major studio films ever, the gore (and Brundle’s physical detritus) exists for organically. For example, in generic slasher films, minor characters are killed in gratuitous, titillating ways. Basically, the movies exist because of the kills, which don’t really make good narrative foundations. In The Fly, titillating situations occur – there’s a particularly great scene where the newly insect-infused Brundle, shunned by Veronica, walks to a bar in search of a repository for his newfound masculinity (i.e., fighting and fucking). He arm wrestles a brute, and ends up snapping his wrist, which we see in gory detail. And, again, as titillating as this is, it’s not the focus of the scene. The scene would make its point without the wrist-snapping, but the wrist-snapping punctuates the scene so well.
If there’s any criticism about The Fly, it’s that the first twenty minutes are cutesy and rushed. While Brundle and Veronica build their relationship, they say obviously scripted, cinematic couple-y lines, which are glaring. And some of the prosthetic effects are awful – one of the latter fly costumes looks like, well, Jeff Goldblum in a latex suit. But these are minor flaws, and are completely forgivable once you realize you’re watching a truly unique, visionary horror film.