A grotesque and graphic science fiction dynamo, David Cronenberg’s The Fly is the culmination of his thematic curiosities to date. The 1986 motion picture is based on George Langelaan’s 1957 short story of the same name and features a screenplay by Cronenberg and Charles Edward Pogue. The makeup effects by Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis took home an Oscar.
Coming on the back of The Dead Zone, one of Cronenberg’s most measured pictures, The Fly can look downright combustible with its troubling effects and emotional devastation. Both movies share an awful lot, including a romantic core and some moving reflections about death and the aging process.
Jeff Goldblum stars as scientist Seth Brundle. He meets Veronica (Geena Davis) at a press event and whisks her away to his laboratory/apartment, where he reveals that he’s been working on teleportation. He sends one of her stockings from one pod to another and she’s entranced. Eventually, he works up to successfully transporting a baboon from one pod to another.
One night, in a jealous and drunken state, Brundle successfully teleports. But there’s a problem: a fly slips inside the pod with him. Brundle goes through changes, developing incredible strength and stamina. Veronica is worried. Their relationship crumbles with his conceit, but the most amazing changes are to come.
Once again, Cronenberg’s curiosities about a scientific corporation of some kind are present. Brundle receives funding from Bartok Scientific Industries, a company he says is unaware of his innovations and generally leaves him alone because he’s cheap. This featureless company reflects the needle-threading of money and scientific advancement, where weird stuff goes on behind closed doors.
But more than the intersection of money and science, The Fly is concerned with the intersection of science and the personal – even the romantic. Brundle, thanks to Goldblum’s glorious portrayal, is initially an awkward but ambitious man. He feels instant chemistry with Davis’ collected Veronica.
Things heat up and their relationship goes through a whirlwind of emotions. Brundle is jealous when Veronica’s editor, Stathis Borans (John Getz), becomes more of an issue. This jealousy, combined with the champagne of a sunk celebration, is the catalyst for his crucial error.
There is a lot of scientific chatter in The Fly, but Cronenberg’s interest in the metaphysical is forceful. Consider how Brundle explains the computer’s rationalizing of its tasks. The computer is stupid. It does what it’s told, so it does what it believes its operator wants. It gives an “interpretation” of teleportation, which clarifies its struggle to teleport animate objects.
When Brundle cracks the code and hammers down this mistake, all goes according to plan. The disaster that results is therefore an error in his judgement, a painful irony given his relentless frustration regarding the technological aspects of his experiment.
This consideration of machines doing exactly what they’re told is touched on in Fast Company, with Cronenberg’s interest in cars taking root in how operators can tweak an engine to generate a fiery and potentially deadly crash. In The Fly, Brundle’s capacity to meld his teleportation apparatus with the correct approach to “the flesh” transforms him on a molecular level.
Walas’ merging of animatronics, makeup and prosthetics comes up with a vision of horror that is astonishing and layered. There are other inadvertent fusions of the creature, like the mingling of the Brundlefly with the teleportation pod itself for a Videodrome-esque amalgamation of technology and flesh.
From the effects to the performances to Howard Shore’s operatic score, The Fly is what happens when the exoskeletons in Cronenberg’s closet skitter to life. There are many narrative aspects and angles to examine and many reasons to watch and rewatch this classic vision of science fiction. And there are many frightening possibilities, like what exactly lies beyond the nexus of fear and hideous discovery.