It’s my body and I’ll ‘Fly’ if I want to: Cronenberg’s scientific cautionary tale
As diverse as his career has been, there is arguably one key feature that best defines a David Cronenberg film. There are, of course, exceptions (in some cases, great exceptions: A History of Violence ), but from Rabid (1977) to A Dangerous Method (2011), the relationship between science and the human body and mind has been a prevalent and powerfully expressive theme in much of the great Canadian filmmaker’s work. Of his films that deal with the repercussions of this relationship, and their unique, often disturbing manifestations, The Fly (1986) may be his finest achievement.
In this horror/sci-fi classic, Jeff Goldblum plays Seth Brundle, a brilliant if socially awkward and rather eccentric scientific mind. His newest invention, a teleportation device that can move inanimate objects from one pod to another, seems innocuous enough, in theory anyway. And at least as he tells it, he seems to have genuinely developed the machine with the best of intentions, touting the mobility benefits of the world-changing technology. Somewhat intoxicated, and more than a little smitten, he is eager to show off his creation to journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). Brundle lets his guard down and divulges more than he wishes he had about the contraption. Though he is initially angered by the compromising situation, he and Veronica reach a stalemate and, more than that, begin a romantic relationship. With all going well on that front, Brundle is further enthused when he discovers how to transport a living being—in this case, a chimp who unfortunately had his brother become the initial, and eventually mangled, guinea pig.
When Veronica suddenly leaves one evening (in reality to stop her editor and former lover from running a story about Brundle’s work), Brundle assumes she is still involved with the sleazy ex. In a drunken stupor, he transports himself from pod to pod, and though that in itself is successful, a fly inadvertently landed inside the starting container and subsequently has its genetic makeup merged with Brundle’s, the result being a single being the scientist later dryly dubs “Brundlefly.” Through the duration of the film, Brundle’s body and, to varying degrees, his mental state, begin to go through progressively more disturbing and destructive alterations.
As he begins to lose his humanity and identity, so too does his external being start to increasingly dissipate. While Brundle’s personality is undeniably altered, becoming hostile and aggressive though never without fully escaping a sense of his true self, it’s his physical transformation that is most prominent and most drastically disastrous. At first, the manipulations prove to be favorable, with increased strength and stamina, but the ostensible positives are short lived and he is soon falling apart—literally so, as chunks of his flesh, fingernails, and teeth detach from his body with darkly comic ease and regularity. As his body begins to deteriorate and evolve, with each new passing ability comes a horrific abandonment of his human form, often shown in graphic detail by Cronenberg via some truly extraordinary make-up and special effects. The pain of these changes, and the extent to which each passing phase takes him further and further from being human, is agonizing to behold.
One could read easily into The Fly a cautionary tale about taking science too far. Certainly, it paints a vivid picture of what can happen when science is used to alter mankind in unnatural ways. But that Brundle’s modification happens in this film is, in the grand scheme of things, largely incidental. His physical transformation is accidental, and that such a thing could have happened was never part of the plan. If anything, the warning comes as Brundle begins to take for granted the physical perks that are initially produced by the genetic merging. He enjoys the newfound sexual vigor and his superhuman strength, and he playfully revels in the fly-related abilities—crawling on walls and hanging from ceilings—but with each new and exciting endowment comes those unavoidable, though perfectly natural (for a fly) shortcomings: bodily contortions, gruesome digestion, and structural disfigurement. The good and the bad balance out for a time, but eventually, the corruptive and fatal metamorphosis begins to outweigh any superficial benefits.
In depicting the changes that sweep over Brundle, Cronenberg ventures into his trademark body horror, with an oftentimes gruesomely detailed and prolonged depiction of the corporeal alterations. Undeniably apropos given this film’s emphasis on the transformation of one being into another, it similarly returns to a bodily emphasis that the director has explored in a number of venues. Brundle voices the vivid power and potential of flesh and blood— in terms of cinematic presentation and natural function—as he chides Veronica for not wanting to “dive into the plasma pool.” Seeing what is obviously happening to Brundle, she refuses to likewise teleport, which he takes as a personal affront and cowardice. “You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t you?” he angrily asks her. “I’ll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don’t you? But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick, gray, fear of the flesh.” More than just the ramblings of a madman, these comments get to the heart of The Fly’s own repulsive imagery. To see this film with an audience, one truly gets a sense of how collectively repulsive Brundle’s transformation is. As body parts mutate and orifices open to oozy fluids, it is indeed a ghastly sight. But it’s not only because how extraordinary the transformation is (from man into fly), and in that sense how out of the realm of reality it is, but it’s also how relatable the disfigurement actually is. We may not be able to wrap our heads around the reality of turning into an insect, but we can definitely emphasize with teeth falling out, fingernails falling off, and pores of puss bursting on our faces.
This is why David Cronenberg’s particular brand of body horror works so well, and it’s also a primary reason why The Fly is so memorable. Through a brilliance of creative conception and technical execution, the effects created and rendered on screen are utterly disgusting, yet are also wholly believable. What is more, if standing back and seen from the vantage point of “it’s only a movie,” one also marvels at the design and construction. Cronenberg’s body horror, and The Fly may indeed be the best case in point, rides a fine line between aesthetic admiration and psychological and physiological identification. We may never see a Brundlefly, but thanks to David Cronenberg, we can easily appreciate what it takes to make one—both in the fictional story of The Fly and in the film’s actual production.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT