The Fly is a horror classic. That statement applies to two movies, made almost 30 years apart both based on the 1957 short story by George Langelaan. In this particular review we will be taking a look at the more Cronenbergian flavor of the two starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. This is a body horror flick of the ooziest, ickiest kind, and we’re going to get into all of it in spoilery fashion. If you’re cool with that, read on (or listen on by hitting the podcast link - we talk about it, too).
Reviewed by: Jake
Seth Brundle (Jeff Glodblum) is a hell of a scientist except he apparently suffers from profound motion sickness when traveling in any way, so naturally he’s devoted his life to the study of teleportation and the dude has a machine that can break shit apart at the molecular level in one chamber and reassemble it in another. He meets a cute journalist named Veronica / “Ronnie” (Geena Davis) at an event and is instantly enamored so he does the one thing he can think of to show a girl a good time which is to take her back to his science bunker and flaunt his teleportation machine. Typically this would work poorly, but when a scientist is as dreamy as Jeff Goldblum and can teleport women’s stockings, it’s a pretty easy entryway into pound-town… The two hit it off over cheeseburgers and failed teleportations of baboons. Brundle makes her an offer she cannot refuse by letting her document his every move with exclusive rights to the book on the man who changed the world through the advent of teleportation travel.
In time, Brundle figures out how to properly program the computer to reassemble living organisms after taking them apart and he successfully teleports a baboon. They break out the bubbly, but Ronnie bails to go deal with her dickhead ex-boyfirend and magazine editor, Borans (John Getz) who had been threatening to publish Brundle’s story due to his jealousy over Ronnie’s fledgling romance with Brundle. Brundle gets drunk and decides to teleport himself. Little does he know there is a fly in the chamber with him. Ruh-roh.
He comes otu the other end seemingly unscathed and at first, shows signs of increased strength and energy, but it is quickly dashed by manic episodes and his body starts to break down, developing pockmarks before his fingernails start falling off and he begins oozing pus. He slowly deteriorates into a man/fly hybrid, but only discovers and accepts what happened very late in the proceedings. Amongst all of this, Ronnie discovers she is pregnant with Brundle’s child, which was most likely implanted in her after his molecular fusion with the fly. According to the movie science, that would make their progeny 25% fly or something, so she wants it out. At the end of the film, we get a classic, monster-captures-girl situation, and Borans actually comes to help. He’s injured in the process while Brundle tries to teleport with Ronnie and the unborn child in the same chamber to fuse themselves together and make him more human. They trap him alone at the last second and then blow his head off. The end.
What the Movie Does Right
Oh yeah. This movie is an unbelievable tour-de-force of practical effects. Seriously look at the above. Then consider this - Special effects gurus Chris Walas (Gremlins, Return of the Jedi, Piranha) and Stephan Dupuis (Scanners, RoboCop) won a fucking ACADEMY AWARD for best makeup for their work on this film. Watching it should make it obvious that it is a well deserved award, but we all know that this is just not how the Academy works. The fact that this happened marks one of of an extremely limited number of times horror has ever been recognized with an Oscar.
If you are watching this movie, especially in 2019, it’s because of the effects. In the same breath, you have to give a huge shout out to Jeff Goldblum for his performance in this film. He may have been born to play his role in Independence Day but this is an extremely close second. And it’s not just because he wore five pounds of makeup at times for his role which took five hours per day to apply. His nervous energy fits Brundle’s character perfectly, and his charisma is perfect for the offbeat but lovable character he plays. It’s because of this that the other major element of what this movie does right comes into play - emotional punch. Body horror is about the mutation and loss of humanity in a character. There is no better example of that in film than in The Fly. To get philosophical for a second, the film’s story can be taken as an analogy for disease or aging and it’s effects on families/loves ones.
As Brundle slowly realizes what is happening, you can feel his fear. Geena Davis helps drive this home as well with a surprisingly emotional performance given the subject matter. Seriously, if you tell someone what this movie is about, it sounds dumb as shit. But these two carry this to an emotional plane that I did not know would be possible. It’s much heavier than the surface-level synopsis would imply.
What the Movie Does Wrong
I mean, let’s not dissect the science here. I already said this is a special effects-driven movie and that’s how it should stay. There is legitimate plot progression in this thing where Goldblum has an epiphany about how to make the teleportation of living organisms happen due to a throw away line post-coitus with Ronnie that sends him into a frenzy where he discovers how to program his computer to reassemble things correctly via teleporting steak… Yup.
I’d also quibble with the writing of the ex-boyfriend, Boyans. It always felt off-balance whenever Ronnie and he had one of their scenes together. There is something to be said about how they ultimately came back together at least platonically to overcome the transformed Brundlefly, but god damn that whole part of the plot really ripped me out whenever it reared its ugly head.
Story: 7.5 - This story of an earnest scientist who steps unknowingly into his own destruction and the effects it has on both him and his loved ones is pretty heavy-hitting when you consider it’s also a story about a dude who splices his fucking DNA together with a house fly and becomes Brundlefly.
World-Building / Immersion: 7 - There is a bit that takes you out of the movie when you are forced to think about the science, but luckily the scenes where that is front & center are few and far between. Otherwise, you’re allowed to focus on the effects and the character story, it’s quite solid.
Scare-Factor: 7 - The weight this one packs is heavier than I remembered from earlier watches in my life. There is a heavy amount of adult fear here, masked with disfiguration via housefly. This could be cancer or old age or any other destructive force that tears someone apart. That’s heavy.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 10 - Practical does not get better than this. And this is (almost) all practical. And we got Howard Shore on the score.
Overall: 8.5 - This is an absolute horror classic and one of the very few instances where the sequel outdoes the original film. Nothing against the Vincent Price version, I love that movie, but this one has such a mixture of 80’s practical, goes-too-far ickiness mixed with a story with real depth that I have to give it the nod. Cronenberg’s best work.