I Sing The Body Insectile: David Cronenberg's The Fly At Thirty

There are few filmmakers quite like David Cronenberg. The Canadian auteur, primarily known for his films' fascination with "body horror," has always had a gift for elevating the grotesque, pulling from the most visceral unnerving decay something distressingly human. Though recently the director has transitioned to more (comparatively) subdued fare, his early output, for all its willingness to indulge the repulsive, remains the highlight of his body of work.

There is probably no film that illustrates Cronenberg's genius quite like The Fly, which slipped into theaters on August 15, 1986: thirty years ago. A remake of Kurt Neumann's 1958 science-fiction staple (and often touted as one of the most successful film remakes in cinematic history), Cronenberg's film is a mournful, ferocious beast. To the casual fan, the picture may primarily be known for its makeup effects -- which won Chris Walas and Stephen Dupuis an Academy Award -- and they are indeed spectacular in their hideousness. But while on the surface The Fly may simply seem like a well-made showcase for some gross-out horror, the film itself is deeply sensitive, charting in agonizing detail the rift between the physical and the emotional, and how man's conception of his best nature must contend with his basest.

Jeff Goldblum (in a wonderfully antic performance) stars as Seth Brundle, a scientist who has secretly been working on a way to teleport matter. After meeting science journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) at a party, he invites her back to his laboratory to demonstrate his work: two "telepods" between which matter can, ideally, be moved. Though a test run with a baboon ends in disaster, Veronica and Seth begin a relationship, and their first sexual encounter inspires Brundle to successfully tweak his calculations. Over time, however, Brundle becomes paranoid that Veronica has resumed a relationship with her editor, Stathis Borans (John Getz), and, one night, he drunkenly decides to be his own human trial. Unbeknownst to Seth, a fly has landed in the opposite telepod, and when the machine is activated, Brundle and the fly are merged at a molecular level. Soon, the scientist's body begins to degrade, inching ever closer to some sort of sick equilibrium between man and insect.

On the surface it all sounds rather silly, and in the 1958 original, it all sort of is. The results of that experiment are twofold: a man with a fly's head, and (we later discover) a fly with a man's head, the latter of which rather cheekily ends the film snared in a spiderweb. While Neumann's film presents the transformation as instantaneous, Cronenberg lets the metamorphosis progress slowly, gradually sapping away Brundle's humanity, on a physical and mental level. The result is a film of wonderful and horrible strangeness: a mashup of love triangle, body horror, and philosophical experiment that yields the sort of final product only Cronenberg could produce. By prolonging Brundle's devolution -- and forcing both Veronica and the audience to witness its incremental progress -- the director gives himself the opportunity to, bit by bit, confront the relationship between the corporeal and the intangible.

The seeds for this discussion are planted early in the film, before Brundle's accident even begins. Rather, the accident itself is framed as the result of a clash between bodily intelligence and emotional intelligence. Consider that the breakthrough Brundle has that allows for him to transport himself between pods is inspired by sex (the physical, and the film's other example of the merging of two bodies), while the recklessness that prevents Seth from checking to make sure the other pod is empty (and thus results in him fusing with the fly) is spurred by emotional insecurity.

From this point forward, Cronenberg asks how long Brundle's mind and soul can remain intact, even as his body is transformed. Almost immediately, the scientist's physical cravings for sugar and sex are magnified, and he initially delights in his enhanced strength, and ability to climb the walls. Even as he begins to lose his teeth, Brundle tries to maintain a rational mindset, treating his unraveling as a science experiment like any other, storing his lost parts ("artifacts of a bygone era...of historical interest only") in the medicine cabinet, which he dubs "the Brundle Museum of Natural History."

Before long, however, Brundle feels himself losing his grip. In perhaps the film's most powerful scene, he warns Veronica that he is not to be trusted, intoning, "You have to leave now, and never come back here. Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects don't have politics. They're very...brutal: no compassion, no compromise. We can't trust the insect. I'd like to become the first insect politician." As a tearful Veronica looks on, baffled, Brundle explains: "I'm saying I am an insect who dreamt he was a man."

Brundle's predictions for his own ferocity soon come to pass as he abducts Veronica upon learning she is pregnant, in hopes of merging him, her, and the fetus into the "ultimate family." When Borans swoops in to save the day, what's left of Brundle -- the Brundlefly -- vomits digestive enzymes onto the man's hand, dissolving it. When the final experiment eventually goes wrong, Brundlefly is fused with the wreckage of one of the telepods, barely able to move. With the last of his energy, he gestures for Veronica to press the barrel of a shotgun to his head, and she pulls the trigger.

In the years following The Fly's release, the AIDS epidemic gained greater and greater publicity, and critics often compared the vision of Seth Brundle's physical decay -- a body slowly giving up its humanity -- with the ravages of HIV. Others, noting Brundle's simultaneous emotional decay, suggested his transformation as a metaphor for addiction; and, indeed, Geena Davis' tearful confusion as she tries to make sense of her ex-lover's warning mimics the bafflement, mourning, and fear that many addicts have seen in the faces of their own loved ones. Experimentation leading to mental and physical destruction? The comparison checks out. Still, to suggest any sort of one-to-one comparison would do Cronenberg's vision a tremendous disservice. Rather, it makes sense to analyze The Fly as a reflection of the central truth from which these and other tragedies spring: how the body and mind are connected, and how they define one another. Does Brundle's physical metamorphosis into an insect encourage his mental change? Did he have any hope of fighting the brutality that he believes is inherent to these creatures? Of course the film also gestures towards the time-honored anxiety of its source and other films of that era: the failure of the intellect to effectively manipulate the physical world. Whereas Kurt Neumann's film came on the heels of the advent of the atomic bomb -- the ultimate example of man's scientific acumen producing something monstrous -- Cronenberg's film finds itself born into a world where science can barely forestall and certainly not prevent the prospect of the body essentially devouring itself. Compounding this is the social death that accompanied the AIDS crisis, the way in which culture exiled those who contracted the virus. As the body of the sufferer became victim of a host of once compatible illnesses, society recast the sick as something to be shunned: an agent of perceived moral and social pestilence. This reading is only strengthened by the fact that in one of his earliest pictures, the diabolical Shivers (1975), Cronenberg addressed the fear of sexually transmitted illnesses, showing how the primal fervor of desire and disease upends the sterile and bourgeois enclave of a ritzy apartment complex.

That Cronenberg was able to allow for all these ideas in his film (he co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Edward Pogue), without suffocating the visceral or emotional power of the central relationships is something of a miracle. Aside from its richness of subtext and textural generosity, what perhaps is most memorable about The Fly is its empathy and emotional wealth. Goldblum and Davis' chemistry is palpable and both performances are wonderfully naturalistic. It might seem absurd or corny to suggest that the film is as much a love story or romantic tragedy as it is a horror or science-fiction picture, but without that central romance (which does a great deal to distance the film from the charming woodenness of its predecessor) Cronenberg's movie would not be the same beast. And it's fitting; there is perhaps no more regular example of the tug of war between the tangible and the unspeakable than in the kindling and degradation of love.