The Fly (1986)

The David Cronenberg remake of the classic Vincent Price horror film is one of the rare instances of a remake actually surpassing the original in almost every way.  In fact, it is so great an example of its genre that the powerful, simple analytical tool of the Hero’s Journey is only enough to scratch the surface.   With that warning, here we go…

(and another warning: buttloads o’spoilers ahead)

CONFRONTED WITH CHALLENGE:  When scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) attempts to build a teleportation machine, he meets a beautiful journalist Veronica Quaife (Gena Davis) who begins to open his heart, challenging him to be a more complete human being.

REJECTS CHALLENGE: Inexperienced in the ways of the heart, Seth falls in love with her, and cannot handle his jealousy when she spends time with an ex-boyfriend, getting drunk and making a critical error–going through the teleportation machine while a fly is in the same pod.

ACCEPTING THE CHALLENGE: The accident forces the computer to join Seth and the fly on a genetic/molecular level, forcing Seth to face not only the consequences of his experiment, but fully experience his own humanity…as he loses it.

ROAD OF TRIALS: Meeting and falling in love with Veronica.  Trying to get the “bugs” out of the pod (ouch).  Realizing that the reason the teleportation pod has failed is that his own dissociation with “the flesh” has made him take too rational approach. What is needed is a bit of insanity…and he certainly gets it.  After his horrific error, Seth descends into body distortion and madness, as he becomes a blend of man and fly, at first conferring massive strength and agility and sexual prowess, then transforming him into a monstrosity that is of danger even to the woman he loves.

ALLIES AND POWERS.  His ally in finding his humanity is Veronica, but she comes into his life too late to stop him from making his fatal error, and once made there is nothing but a descent into madness and death.  His greatest power, his intellect, takes him where his greatest weakness, his emotions, cannot follow.

CONFRONT EVIL–FAIL: The moment he steps into the pod, it is the beginning of the end. He does not realize it until, rotting from the inside, he discovers his error.

DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL–the slide into monstrosity is heartbreaking and irreversible.  He is, truly, one of the most sympathetic monsters in screen history.

LEAP OF FAITH–a final moment of humanity, at the very end, when he begs for death to deliver him.

CONFRONT EVIL–SUCCEED: He convinces Veronica to kill him.

STUDENT BECOMES TEACHER:  His efforts to evolve failed due to his lack of faith in Veronica.  All that remains is the pit of despair, and a truly shocking and heart-breaking ending.

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There are so many ways to look at this movie, and it works on multiple levels.  As a romance, as science fiction (the “what if?” is obvious), as horror, as metaphor.   I cannot pretend to offer “the” interpretation, but I hope the HJ applied to this has been a useful trigger for thought and conversation.

But I would like to point out just a single moment of this movie, and ask you to think about the implications.

After Seth and Veronica make love for the first time, Seth is injured by a transistor that has somehow gotten into his bed.   It punctures his skin. Later, “fly hairs” grow up out of those same puncture holes.  And then still later, Seth goes through the teleportation pods again as the pod is damaged, and ends up a meld of human, fly, and machine.  Yerch.

In a screen play this dense and masterful, it is reasonable to assume that every choice was either deliberate, or the result of deep, unconscious aesthetic sensibility.   No accidents.  So here are some questions and thoughts.

  1. Why a transistor?   How did it get into the bed?  Why not a shard of glass?   Why did it happen at all?  Was Cronenberg foreshadowing the tragic mistake to come?   Was this symbolic of man and technology on a collision course?
  2. Why did this happen at his moment of greatest humanity, making love with a woman he could actually bond to?  Was it his emotional vulnerability being punished by the technology his fear (remember he gets motion sickness) motivated him to create?
  3. The technology damages him, and that damage reveals “the beast within.”   What is Cronenburg saying about our attempts to use technology to compensate for our weaknesses, thereby allowing us to avoid the actual growth we might have been forced to?
  4. Cronenberg is WAY into “body horror”, and often a matter of our technology and twisted emotions corrupting us.  “Videodrome” and its classic “the cathode ray tube has become the retina of the mind’s eye.”   “Shivers” and its bioengineered venereal/aphrodesiac parasites.   “The Brood” and a woman’s twisted emotions externalized by the “bioplasmic institute” and its bizarre therapy.  “Rabid” and its sexual stinger beneath porn star Marilyn Chamber’s arm.  Sex, emotions, intellect, technology…they will not merely destroy us, but twist us into unrecognizable Gordian Knots, destroy the things we love, and our attempts to evade or conceal them will just make it all worse.
  5. I ask you to wonder why a fly was the creature focused upon. Why not an ant?   Or a germ, for Christ’s sake.  The air is filled with them.    Yes, the script was adapted from an earlier work, but if I remember the earlier film, the fly was just an insect.  Here, it was a metaphor for filth, degradation.   Brundel vomits on his food and slurps it up.  His complexion becomes super-acne.   He stinks.  He consorts with low types in a filthy bar, and picks up a woman who will screw anyone who can win an arm-wrestling contest.    The fly represents the most base instincts and actions. The only thing we don’t see is him eating dog shit.    So…at the end, when he becomes man, fly, and machine, what was he saying there?   Viewed as an arc of transformation from the intrusion of the transistor into his sexual intimacy, what emerges?   Considering that Veronica, his love, is forced to be the instrument of destruction and deliverance, what meaning now emerges?  What is the greatest power?  Love?  Intellect?  The race to the bottom of our instincts?  Does the carrion eater triumph over all?  Is all our technology useless because our baser instincts will always win?  Is denial of the flesh the greatest flaw of intellect?
  6. Is love and/or sex a positive or negative thing in this movie?   Arguably, Seth is destroyed by love (it is his jealousy that short-circuits logic and leads to his error).  Or was it that he should have let love in years earlier, and thereby gained the experience he’d have needed to control his emotions?

Ah, we can go around and around, infinitely.   As I said, I cannot claim to “know” the meaning of the film. But as you use any analytical tool, you can peel back the surface to look at the underlying emotions. What creates “horror” here, then?

  1. Lost opportunity: love comes too late to avoid destruction.
  2. Corruption of the flesh, a fate that finds us all.
  3. The fear of loss of our minds and morality
  4. The fear that we will be of danger to those we love.
  5. The fear that our “healthy” bodies will betray us (Veronica’s frantic need to abort “little Brundlefly”)
  6. Fear that our emotions will destroy us.

And I’m probably missing dozens more. This is REAL horror, and a fine, fine film of its kind.  Well directed, beautifully performed, masterfully written.   “The Fly” is a classic.

Steve

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