The Fly

US | 1986 | Directed by David Cronenberg

Logline: A maverick scientist invents teleportation, but after an experiment goes wrong he slowly starts to mutate into a human-fly hybrid.

 "I'm saying I'm an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it, but now that dream is over and the insect is awake."

In the world of nightmare cinema Cronenberg’s embrace and melding of sf concepts and visceral horror are unique and brilliant. His remake of The Fly (1950) is no exception, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this week. While some critics would accuse Cronenberg of trying to turn something truly base and repulsive into high art, the movie turned out to be the most financially successful and critically acclaimed movie of his career (it won an Oscar for Best Special Effects), and it also features a career performance from Jeff Goldblum.

Screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue originated the idea of doing a remake of the classic B-movie. When Cronenberg came onboard (after aborting from the Total Recall project he was set to direct), he made extensive re-writes, including changing the characters and re-writing all of the dialogue, but he retained Pogue’s central “fusion” and gradual mutation concept, and most of the plot points, and infused a wonderful edge of black humour.

Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is an incredibly talented, but eccentric scientist. He lives alone in a warehouse space in a rundown building. Whilst at a convention he’s badgered into doing an interview by ambitious science journalist Veronica (Geena Davis). Brundle agrees, but only if he can show her his Big Secret, something that will change the world as they know it. The chemistry is obvious. They arrange for Veronica to document Seth’s experimental process.

When Veronica’s magazine editor Stathis (John Getz), and sleazy ex-boyfriend, finds out the kind of story she’s sitting on he interferes and starts making demands. Brundle becomes jealous of Stathis lurking in the background, and in a drunken moment alone he makes a rash decision, which results in a very serious consequence at the genetic-molecular level. What begins as superhuman strength and a ferocious libido is soon overwhelmed by “insect politics” and sub-human instincts.

There is a genuine bond between Goldblum and Davis (they became long-term partners during the making of the movie), and Getz plays the third fiddle as solid support. The special effects makeup work by Chris Walas is amazing for the time (Walas would go on to direct a lame, entirely unnecessary sequel). The physical degradation of Brundle is something in itself, right up to the animatronic monster, but also of note are the gore effects (the snapped wrist in the arm wrestle scene is a wince-inducing stand-out). A scene in the shooting script which was (unfortunately) never filmed had Brundlefly scoffing restaurant leftovers from a dumpster and a bag lady sees him and screams in horror and disgust. Brundlefly reacts by seizing the lady and disintegrating her head with his vile vomit, then after recoils in a moment of human realisation at what he’s just done.

David Cronenberg’s The Fly is so cleverly put together, so entertaining, and yet, so grand in its tragedy it’s almost Shakespearean. Apart from the 80s fashion and hairstyles the movie has aged very well, the production design (Cronenberg based the pods on his own Ducati motorcycle cylinders), special effects (note the revolving set, pioneered by Kubrick on 2001), the thematic content, even the basic science fiction principle is still as pertinent as it ever was, perhaps even more so in this rapidly over-congesting, technomaniacal world.

Cronenberg’s fascination with the disintegration of the body, the perversely close relationship between human and machine, the dangers of scientific experimentation, and the desire for dark adventure, are all superbly integrated in his re-imagining. Along with John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, it is easily one of the best remakes ever produced.