I’m glad I re-watched David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly on Blu-ray. I haven't watched it in decent resolution since I saw it in a theater on first release. It's still brilliant and perfect, and profoundly moving—maybe Cronenberg's greatest and most perfect film; a horror tragedy that doesn't cop out, ever. Deftly combining aspects of romantic comedy, science fiction, gross-out midnight movie, and parable of the consequences of hubris, The Fly also works as a metaphor for what happens to couples and individuals when the body breaks down, decays, or merely ages. (When the hero’s “disease” starts to snowball, he totters into the lab on two canes like an old man; something about the makeup reminded me of the “old” Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane.)
Charles Edward Pogue's original script was heavily rewritten by Cronenberg, who fleshed out the main characters and the central love triangle and infused the whole story with his distinctive brand of pulp poetry, which is fundamentally rational yet prone to flights of romantic obsession and grandiose theatrical monologues. Since the film's original release, Pogue has been very open about Cronenberg’s contributions, and why wouldn't he be? They give the film much of its flavor. The Fly is filled with quotable lines and phrases, including "the poetry of steak" and "insect politics" and "Not to wax, uh, messianic" and "Drink deep, or taste not, the plasma spring! Y'see what I'm saying? And I'm not just talking about sex and penetration. I'm talking about penetration beyond the veil of the flesh! A deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool!"
It's also a genuinely sexy film, at least at the start, before the body parts start falling off. (That closeup of the "Brundlefly Museum" of "redundant" body parts in the hero's fridge still makes me gasp; his cock is in there!) Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle and Geena Davis’s Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife are one of the most real-seeming screen couples of the ‘80s. You can tell the actors were lovers during this period: they know each other's bodies as well as they know each other's senses of humor. They even share physical and vocal tics, as couples who've been together a while always do. Neither has ever looked more beautiful, but they’re attractive in a real way, not an airbrushed Hollywood way. Cronenberg treats them as real people whose wit and intelligence are as attractive as their bodies. The way Veronica plucks that bit of circuit board from Seth’s back post-coitus, and helps him clip those “weird hairs” as he's eating ice cream from a carton later; all the scenes of them eating in restaurants and walking through city marketplaces, doting on each other, exchanging the sorts of glances that only real lovers trade: these details and others make it feel as though we are observing a relationship, not a screenwriter's construct. Ditto the wonderful little character-building touches, as when Seth, who suffers from motion sickness, gets out of a taxi before it has even come to a full stop, and Ronnie gripes about a substandard cheeseburger, then eats one of the pickles first before biting into the sandwich.
When Goldblum sheds his geeky facade and embraces what he thinks is his Super Fly destiny, he becomes even more attractive because he's so dangerously confident; he walks with a swagger, tossing his long hair like a Persian prince in a fairy tale. (This film is my favorite take on Frankenstein ever, because the hero is both Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature—it's one-stop shopping!) Seth and Ronnie seem perfect for each other, which of course makes the ensuing tragedy so much harder to take. The third point in the triangle – Ronnie’s ex-lover and boss, John Getz's Stathis Borin, at first seems a caricature of an 80s Yuppie swine, but he deepens as the film goes along; we see that he's still hopelessly in love with his ex-girlfriend and wants to protect her, and we get that his more asshole-ish remarks are the product of self-loathing, a way of trying to distance her from him, perhaps for what he believes is her own good. (Weird that the character's name has the same first letters as the hero's. Surely it was intentional, but it’s one of the few touches Cronenberg doesn’t elaborate on.)
Ronnie goes from cynical opportunism to deep and true love, but without ever losing her rationality. She looks out for herself, and not once does she seriously consider giving into Seth's, um, messianic waxing. But she never stops loving Seth. In the film’s final third, she’s wracked with guilt over finding her dream man suddenly repulsive and sad. The script is wise about how people in relationships keep feeling love and lust even when one or both are changing. When Ronnie realizes she’s pregnant with Seth’s probably-mutant baby, she decides to abort it, and it’s the correct decision; and yet when Seth crashes through the glass-bricked window of the hospital operating room to “rescue” her and their unborn larvae, she lets herself be swept into his arms anyway. It’s as if she’s in thrall to vestigial, or perhaps primordial, feminine desires to be protected and to bear a lover’s offspring. Her relapse into love is extinguished by horror once she returns to the lab and realizes what Seth has in store for her: a genetic sifting operation designed to minimize the physical presence of Brundlefly by merging him, Ronnie and the “baby.” But there’s never a sense that The Fly is copping out by trying to have things both ways—that it can’t make up its mind what it thinks of the situation. It’s fiercely true to life even though its physiological details are fiendishly unreal. Every stage of Ronnie’s emotional journey rings true. Extricating yourself from a failing relationship while pregnant is a predicament that countless women have experienced; ditto the pain of being in love with a man who’s dying and/or losing his mind, and becoming ever more frightening and repulsive, instilling his survivor with feelings of guilt and shame that she’ll never shake, only learn to manage. Mainstream movies rarely dare to depict such fraught situations in all their messy realness. The Fly does so in a science-fiction setting, with telepods and freaky prostheses and an operatic Howard Shore score that could be the music Franz Waxman heard in his head as he lay dying. It’s all quite astonishing.
Cronenberg is one of the most sophisticated chroniclers of romance in modern cinema, and I’m surprised critics haven’t made more of this over the decades. Why? Perhaps it’s because Cronenberg deals in symbols and metaphors as well as witty dialogue and plausible behavior. It can be hard to sense the human heart beating beneath the blood and goo that engulf some of his finest adult dramas. The Fly is a rare horror film—and a rare big-budget Hollywood movie, period—that is adult in all the ways that count. I would never show it to a child, or even a young adult, not because of the sex and gore, but because they would have no way of processing the feelings it evokes. You have to have lived a bit to truly appreciate this movie, and it only becomes more powerful as you grow older.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.
4 thoughts on “Beyond the Veil of the Flesh: David Cronenberg’s THE FLY (1986)”
Great piece, Matt!
I love how abrupt both its beginning and ending are. There is no shot to establish the location in the opening scene, but instead just a shot of Seth responding to somebody out-of-frame (Veronica). It's just "What am I working on?" and the movie is instantly about them by way of his project. The ending is much the same with no coda to show what happens to Veronica after Seth, or to ease the audience away from the trauma of the climax. It is completely unsettling, but leaves you with so much sorrow for them as individuals, and as a couple. Love this movie.
I was going to cite the "insect politics" speech but Michael got there first. Lovely piece, Matt. And stirring film. My favorite Cronenberg.
A chilling masterpiece by one of the most intelligent directors of all time. The "Insect Politics" monologue is up there with the "Indianapolis" monologue. They don't make 'em like this anymore.
A wonderful piece, Matt: you nailed it!