Canon Entry - The Fly (1986)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
On first seeing The Fly, I knew I was watching something more than a mere horror picture even though it is one of the best examples of the genre. Of course, knowing that it was directed by David Cronenberg probably prepped me to evaluate this film higher than from some relatively unknown genre director, but I could feel my brain whirring about what it could all mean and how Seth Brundle’s metamorphosis (Kafka’s work is a somewhat more cerebral predecessor to this movie) could represent so many different ideas, and on revisiting it nearly a decade later, I realized that new associations kept arising the more I reflected on this movie.
The plot of this movie is fairly well-known, but just in case - Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is an eccentric scientist who invites Veronica (Geena Davis) back to his lab (in a very creepy way I might add) to show her his new invention that he has been working secretly on. It is a transporter that has no problem transporting inanimate objects. However, with Veronica acting as a sort of muse, he realizes the key to transporting living matter. After successfully transporting a baboon, he decides to transport himself, perhaps as a penance for killing a previous baboon, but a fly also enters the transport pod with him, and the DNA of the fly mixes with his own, triggering a physical transformation that only gets more grotesque as the movie continues.
At its core, The Fly is a movie about loneliness and isolation and how both of these can have a detrimental effect on the person experiencing them. It is essentially about an introvert (and egomaniac) who can’t get out of his own head. Jeff Goldblum brings both a very self-assured quiet narcissism and an interesting vulnerability to Brundle. For the past probably decade, Goldblum has become a parody of himself, his quirks accentuated to the point that his every action could be a meme. However, I think he was the right choice for this movie.
He plays Brundle as a determined scholar of a Faustian mindset. One thing that bothered me was why Brundle couldn’t have just tried to market the transporter with its original capability of transporting inanimate objects, already a scientific marvel in and of itself. But it makes sense that his inability to overcome the hurdle of transporting living flesh would only torture him and make him think less of himself. I could also believe him as the tortured soul that he claims to be. And instead of the smarminess that is associated with his latter self-parodic persona, I see a quiet desperation when he tries to connect with Veronica (Geena Davis). He is also able to project great pain even as he is slathered with more and more makeup until he is unrecognizable.
Stepping into the machine without having waited for the tests on the baboon clearly shows Brundle’s tendency for self-destruction. It is interesting that his transformation makes him even more self-destructive. It also parallels his transformation into someone more “masculine” - enhanced physical strength, heightened energy and libido. It is important that both his inspiration to fix the machine and his celebration of its success involves sex. Women are horribly treated in this movie, no one more than Veronica, who is both physically and emotionally abused by Brundle. However, this awful treatment is certainly not restricted to Brundle since her newspaper editor Stathis (John Getz) also tries to emotionally and professionally manipulate her to give herself to him.
Even if women are treated horribly in his films, it’s still fascinating to watch because we can see how men perceive women very clearly in his movies. Cronenberg is also smart enough to reckon with the problems of this possible gaze. In The Brood, the woman is not trusted, probably for good reason, but the men get a lot more credence, and the anxieties that arose from her personal trauma and are made manifest as her brood can be seen as the anxiety over dependence on male dominance. In The Fly we can see what happens when women are seen too much as a savior to save men from themselves, that their toxicity ends up influencing them, impregnating them. A scene where she imagines giving birth to a grub is terrifying and gross yet you can’t imagine a better metaphor.
As for how this film comes off over 20 years after its release, Cronenberg probably didn’t set out to predict the prominence of the culture of toxic masculinity that would rear its ugly head in the nerd culture later. The metaphor in this film certainly works well though. When nerds got more power and cultural cachet when pop culture started to become more nerd-oriented, some of its worst tendencies, including toxic masculinity, manifested in phenomenons like GamerGate, the all male version of The Last Jedi, etc. When Brundle gets more power, he does become godly in some senses but his darker impulses towards abuse and violence manifest as well. Even though he eventually becomes more self-aware, it takes him a while to realize how adversely the transformation was affecting him, even before he became physically grotesque.
Cronenberg understood that his film had to be a character piece and make it as specific as possible. As gross and outrageous as some of the sequences are, they are all necessary. Few directors know how to do body horror quite like Cronenberg. For him, the violence that is inflicted on bodies manifests from pain and darkness that already exists in the individual as opposed to it coming all from an external force. And in Cronenberg’s works, the more grotesque an individual becomes, the more human they seem, not in appearance, but in our understanding of the reasons behind the transformation.