David Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ Proves to Be More Than the Average Gross-Out Movie

The Fly 1986 movie poster

David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly” was released in 1986, a year filled with everlasting cinematic classics like “Aliens,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” “Platoon,” and “Top Gun.” More importantly, it came out during a time where remakes were very rare compared to today, and also when remakes were actually worth watching. Whereas remakes these days serve to capitalize on a known quantity or are being exploited for the sake of some potential franchise, “The Fly” is one where the director took what came before and made it completely his own.

You should all know the story by now. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a brilliant and eccentric scientist who has invented a set of telepods which allow objects to travel instantaneously from one pod to another. Seth shares the story of his invention with science journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) as he attempts to test teleportation on living subjects. Eventually, Seth decides to test it on himself, but he doesn’t realize a common housefly has entered the telepod with him, and the computer gets confused and ends up merging the two lifeforms at a molecular-genetic level. Seth believes the teleportation has purified his body as he discovers a strength he didn’t previously have, but it’s all a build up for a transformation which becomes all the more horrifying as “The Fly” reaches its gruesome climax.

What I love about “The Fly” is its slow build as Cronenberg makes Seth’s transformation into “Brundlefly” all the more unnerving by taking it one step at a time. We first see him engaging in an extraordinary set of gymnastics we would all love to be capable of, and then we watch as he puts an enormous amount of sugar into his coffee at a local diner. This leads Veronica to ask him, “Do you normally take coffee with your sugar?” While I expected a reply along the lines of Christian Slater’s in “True Romance” where he said, “I’m not satisfied until the spoon is standing straight up,” it is immediately clear that Seth is too involved in his own process to see the damage it is doing to his body.

Seth’s face comes to look like it is riddled with severe acne scars, and this brought about a number of PTSD flashbacks for me of when I dealt with my own acne outbreaks back in high school. But the key moment doesn’t come when Seth snaps a guy’s arm in half during an arm wrestle contest (it’s always painful to see a bone sticking out of a person’s body), but instead when he finds himself pulling out his own fingernails. Just the idea of pulling out your own fingernails is painful in itself, but seeing Seth pulling his out to where a great deal of puss explodes from his fingers proves to be even more painful than watching George Clooney getting his fingernails pulled out with a pair of plyers in “Syriana.”

At this point, I want to point out one of “The Fly’s” biggest stars which is Chris Walas. Walas won an Academy Award for Best Makeup for his work here, and it should go without saying just how much he deserved it. As Seth’s body continues to deteriorate in the midst of an unwanted, let alone unexpected, transformation, Walas makes each moment sting with a thankfulness we are not going through what this misguided scientist is. He also gives you the assurance that he and his colleagues have researched all there is to know about this kind of metamorphosis, and this makes Seth’s transformation all the more horrifying. Walas makes you believe something like this could actually happen to where you cannot help but react strongly to everything unfolding before you.

1986 was a big year in science fiction as Sigourney Weaver not only had the lead role in “Aliens,” back when it was rare for an actress to have such a role in a movie, but she also scored an Oscar nomination for her performance which was well-deserved. It’s a shame Goldblum didn’t get the same respect from the Academy as his performance is truly brilliant and wholly original. Just as Weaver dominated all those special effects in “Aliens,” Goldblum makes it clear the makeup is not doing all the acting for him as he fully inhabits Seth Brundle at every stage of his transformation. For the actor, the makeup becomes a costume which comes to inform his character throughout, and Goldblum is fearless in portraying this scientist’s descent into an unwanted fate.

Scientists in movies tend to be either over the top or exceedingly modest and timid, but Goldblum gives us one whose eccentricities make him more alluring than the average one. The actor even sells us on a wonderful moment where he explains why he wears the same suit, shirt and tie each day, and seeing his closet reminded me of a number of movie spoofs where this same situation was used for sheer comedic effect. Even as Seth becomes increasingly unpredictable, let alone unlikable, to be around, Goldblum seduces us deeply into his strange plight which brings about a change he never saw coming.

But let’s not leave out Geena Davis who shares a strong chemistry with Goldblum throughout, and this only makes sense as they were a couple at the time and were briefly married. As Veronica Quaife, Davis creates a complex character whom is eager to take advantage of Seth’s invention for the story of the century, but she soon finds herself falling for him to where she cannot tear herself away from his hideous transformation. The scene where she hugs him after getting her first glimpse at the horrific changes his body is going through brought about a loud gasp of disgust from the audience I watched this movie with at New Beverly Cinema, but it shows just how powerful her performance is. Veronica is at once mortified at how bad things are getting for Seth, and yet she can’t tear herself away from him because she is too emotionally involved to just give up on him. Davis’ commitment to her performance shows the range which would eventually earn her an Academy Award for her work in “The Accidental Tourist.”

Many see Cronenberg as a filmmaker who makes nothing more than gross-out horror movies, but they neglect to see the intelligence and thought he puts into each movie he makes. Whether it’s “The Fly” or “Rabid” or “Scanners” or “Dead Ringers” or “eXistenZ,” Cronenberg has fearlessly explored the phobias we all have of bodily transformation and disease to unforgettable effect. His movies are not designed to make you throw up, but instead to confront how our bodies deteriorate in one way or another. His remake of “The Fly” is one of his most unforgettable motion pictures as we can’t take our eyes off the screen even as Seth Brundle’s transformation becomes all the more disgusting. Its power comes from how it draws you in emotionally more than anything else, and we have as much luck at disconnecting ourselves from Seth’s unnerving plight as Veronica does.

Watching “The Fly” again, it is clearer than ever that this movie is about a tragic romance more than anything else. Heck, Shakespeare would have been proud to have written a tragedy like the one presented here. While much of the attention on this remake is forever directed at the makeup design which still grosses audiences out to this very day, it is the romance between Seth and Veronica which drives the story more than anything else. The two of them want to tear themselves away from one another, but deep down neither of them can truly bare to do so, and they are the kind of couple U2 sang their song “With or Without You” about.

If there’s anything wrong with “The Fly,” it’s the ending as things are resolved in a way which is not altogether satisfying. We are left with questions which would not be answered until “The Fly II,” and while that sequel had its moments, it’s no surprise how it paled in comparison to Cronenberg’s remake.

Horror movie remakes are a dime a dozen these days, but Cronenberg’s “The Fly” remains one of the best and most visceral. It is still the director’s biggest commercial hit to date, and I prefer to see this as proof of how his unique style of filmmaking can reach a wider audience than we typically realize. All these years later, Cronenberg remains one of the most original filmmakers working today, and we eagerly await his next cinematic opus with great anticipation.

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