Directed By: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz
Tag line: "Be afraid. Be very afraid"
Trivia: Initially, Mel Brooks didn't want people to know he was a producer for the film. He feared that, if they knew he was involved, people wouldn't take it seriously
As I mentioned in my write-up of 1958’s The Fly, that movie and the 1986 David Cronenberg-directed version tell the same basic story of a scientist who’s figured out how to teleport objects from one place to another, yet differ in the way said experiment affects their lead characters. Whereas Andre Delambre, the central figure in the 1958 version, trades a few body parts with a housefly, Cronenberg’s Seth Brundle, played by the always reliable Jeff Goldblum, experiences a physical change that turns him into a human fly, and it’s the way the movie presents this transformation that makes 1986’s The Fly a sci-fi / horror classic.
Seth Brundle (Goldblum) has been working on an experiment that will change the world, and at a press event hosted by his sponsor, Bartok Industries, he promises reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) an exclusive on the story if she’ll accompany him back to his laboratory. Veronica agrees, and is amazed to find Brundle has created a teleportation device that can actually send inanimate objects from one “Telepod” to another. Before long, Brundle even manages to transmit a living creature (a baboon) through the Teleporter, and, determined to show it will also work with a human subject, climbs into the Telepod himself one evening. The good news is he survived the experiment. The bad news is he wasn’t alone in the Telepod when he made his journey; a common housefly was in there with him. As a result, Brundle’s DNA was fused with that of the Fly’s. At first, Brundle appears to be stronger than before, and tells Veronica (with whom he’s now romantically involved) the teleportation “purified” his body. But before long, he begins to change, both physically and emotionally, taking on the characteristics of a fly. To make matters worse, a disturbed Veronica, who has turned to her editor and former lover, Stathis (John Getz), for help, learns she’s pregnant with Brundle’s child. But was the baby conceived before his teleportation, or after? Will her unborn child be normal… or a monster?
Jeff Goldblum is terrific as both Seth Brundle, the slightly neurotic scientist on the verge of a major discovery, and “Brundlefly”, the name the scientist gives himself following his tragic trip through the teleportation device, at which point he starts the slow process of turning into a fly. In fact, it’s the actor’s sometimes-frantic turn as Brundlefly, combined with the film’s exceptional special effects, that makes The Fly such a fascinating motion picture. In true Cronenberg fashion, we bear witness to many of the physical changes Brundle undergoes during his transformation, some of which are difficult to watch (Brundle himself finally realizes something is amiss when his fingernails begin to fall off, but for me, the most gruesome image is that of Brundlefly vomiting enzymes onto his food, which breaks it down into a form he can more easily digest). From his early films like Rabid through to movies such as Videodrome and The Brood, Cronenberg established himself as a master of “Body Horror”, altering the human form in ways that can be downright terrifying. With Brundlefly, the director has created his masterpiece, a human / insect hybrid that, by the time the movie ends, undergoes an incredible metamorphosis.
While the primary message of 1986’s The Fly is very similar to that of the 1958 original (“Toying with the laws of nature can lead to disaster”), Cronenberg’s film takes things a step further by challenging our perception of what it means to be human. As difficult as it is to watch Brundle’s physical changes, it’s equally painful to see how his identity slowly slips away from him, an eventuality he seems to have no control over. A man turning into a fly is bad enough; a brilliant scientist reduced to his most basic survival instincts, losing his ability to reason and even his moral judgment along the way, is an altogether different tragedy.