Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We’re all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.- David Cronenberg
PS: Spoilers in the post, certain key sequences and scenes discussed here.
In one of the later scenes in The Fly, the protagonist Seth Brundle( Jeff Goldblum) who by now has acquired the characteristic of a fly, goes on a solitary tour over the city rooftops. All by himself, as he climbs walls, leaps over rooftops, hangs upside down and scurries over the girders of a bridge. It is an intensely personal moment, shot in a beautiful montage, and it is something must off us would have given an arm for. I mean, just imagine, a beautiful moonlight night, and you roam all over the city, unobserved, eavesdropping on people, jumping across rooftops. For a brief moment you are the king of the city roofs, and then the bitter reality strikes in. It is one of the most personal moments in a horror movie, of the protagonist enjoying his new found power, before the bitter reality strikes in a rather gruesome manner.
The Fly is not just a “Body Horror” gore fest, of the hero mutating, due to an error, in effect it is more of a Greek tragedy and a psychological drama. Yes the last 20 minutes turns out to be one of the most horrifying, repulsive spectacle on screen, guaranteed to make you squirm in your seats, or maybe on your couch/bed if you are watching it on a DVD. But at a more deeper level, The Fly is a strong statement against super heroism, of how having what seems a “gift” could eventually turn out to be a “curse” in itself. And this is something quite common to most of David Cronenberg’s movies, in Scanners the gift of telepathy and telekinesis, is sought to be exploited by the corporations for their own selfish purposes, while Christopher Walken’s psychic powers eventually turn out to be his own worst enemy in The Dead Zone.
The Fly is what it would have been if Peter Parker, after being bitten by a radioactive spider, ends up mutating into a giant spider, instead of turning into Spiderman. In this case Peter Parker, takes on the persona of Seth Brundle, a shy nerdy, scientist, obsessed with his latest project. And like most other scientists, he feels that this could be one of those that “could change the world”, as he confides in the reporter Veronica Quaife( Geena Davis). The first scene, where Seth, demonstrates his telepod to her is well set up. Initially dismissive and sceptical, when she sees the effect of the experiment, her entire attitude changes. She knows that she is on to something big.
I’ve been working alone too long. I have a strong urge, uh,to talk about what I’m doing. But, um, if this gets out now… Veronica, it’ll kill me. The Bartok people’ll kill me… my colleagues’ll kill me. It’s not ready yet.
One interesting aspect of the Fly is the presence of Bartok corporation in the background. At no point in the movie is the company explicitly shown, but it’s presence keeps hovering, mostly through Seth. It is clear that once Bartok feels Seth’s utility is outlived, he would be bumped off. Something he himself knows quite too well, and that is why he really does not want to let the world know of his work. Again one more constant theme, that runs across most Cronenberg movies, is his stridently anti corporation stance. In Scanners, it was the corporation misusing the telepathic powers, in Videodrome, again it was the Govt-Corporation nexus, coming up with a rather sinister conspiracy and in Existenz, the entire plot revolves around the rivalry between two organic virtual reality gaming companies trying to “distort reality”, while a 3rd force fights their attempts.
And I’m beginning to think that the sheer process of being taken apart atom by atom and put back together again, why it’s like coffee being put through a filter. It’s somehow a purifying process. It’s purified me, it’s cleansed me. And I tell you, I think it’s going to allow me to realise the personal potential, I’ve been neglecting all these years. That I’ve been obsessively pursuing goal after goal.
The key to creating a great horror movie is in the build up, the small moments, that contribute to the overall feeling. Something Cronenberg does quite effectively, as in here, where he depicts the small hairs growing on Brundle’s bare back. But it is the following sequence of scenes, that effectively set up the process of transformation. Brundle is now more energetic, more stronger, and he does not seem to tire of making love continously. Veronica however is concerned, earlier on she had noted him filling his cup to the brim with sugar, and now she notices the hairs on his back growing much coarser.
You’re afraid to dive into the plasma pool, aren’t you? You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t you? I’ll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh,don’t you? But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick gray fear of the flesh! Drink deep or taste not the plasma spring!
Brundle’s downfall is not just due to the tiny mistake he made, it is in equal part to his blinded vanity. The refusal to see the truth, the path on which he is hurtling down. So drunk with the success of his “experiment” is Brundle that he is unaware, that the very “power” he is boasting about is going to prove his nemesis. Veronica’s sensible advice, is contemptuously brushed aside as mere jealousy. On the other side is Veronica, initially an admirer of Seth’s experiments, she becomes a mute witness to his horrifying transformation. But it is in the last 20 odd minutes, that Veronica’s character comes into her own. Add to it she also has to deal with her editor Stathis Boran(John Getz), her editor, and an opportunistic sleaze pot. Someone who seeks to exploit Brundle’s story for publicity, and lusts after Veronica. Watch out for the last 20 minutes of the movie, when their three lives collide with devastating results.
The Fly like most of Cronenberg’s movies is not an easy watch. Most of the scenes showing Brundle’s transformation, are done with make up, and not much special effects, and the raw, realistic feel, can be quite unsettling. Especially in the scene, where Brundle finds the legs coming out of his torso, can be quite a flincher. Subtlety is not one of Cronenberg’s strong points, and most of his movies have the kind of the scenes, that could just make you turn your head away or flinch.
But it is not just the gore and skin peeling off scenes,it is the more deeper horror involved, of the protagonist, rushing headlong into destruction. You walk out of a Cronenberg movie, unsettled not just by the gore, but also by the rather dark cynical tone. And that is what differentiates his movies from the standard torture porn fests like Hostel or Saw, his exploration of the human pysche.
For that reason alone The Fly is worth a watch. And the movie is bookended by two brilliant performances, but actors, whom i consider quite underrated. Jeff Goldblum, is first rate as Seth Brundle, the protagonist who transforms into the Fly, combining child like innocence with a wilful arrogance, and then his expressions in the later stages are poignant. He makes us empathize for the disfigured character, without playing too much to the galleries. Geena Davis, again another underrated performer, is brilliant, especially in the final scenes, when her character undergoes the emotional tumult. And not to forget Cronenberg’s long time collaborator, composer Howard Shore, providing an unforgettable music score.