“Oh are you serious? A monkey just came apart in there.”
David Cronenberg directing. Jeff Goldblum in the starring role. Geena Davis as the love interest. That’s a pretty 80s-tatsic trifecta right there. And while Davis flirted with a year or two of superstardom, and Goldblum has always been a constant in the years since, bringing his particular brand of weirdness to all sorts of movies, I’d say it’s the director’s name that is still the most synonymous with this movie all these years later. Because even though I’d never seen The Fly before now, I had always known it as a David Cronenberg movie.
Awkwardly flirting at some sort of science exhibit (or is it an art show? I really don’t know), Seth (Goldlbum) meets journalist Veronica (Davis) and convinces her to come back to his home / lab. Once there, he shows her his life’s defining work. Using one of Veronica’s stockings as the guinea pig, Seth teleports it from one pod to another, 15 feet across the room. Veronica is blown away and wants to write about it for a magazine. Seth begs her not to, but she leaves determined to publish the story.
When her editor thinks the story is a hoax, Veronica assumes her story is dead, until Seth shows up at her office. He doesn’t want Veronica to write an article, he wants her to shadow him as he perfects his machine and write an entire book about it. While transporting something inanimate like a stocking is amazing, Seth has been unsuccessful in teleporting organic, living matter. But he feels like he’s on the verge of figuring that out, and even tests his latest tweaks by going in the machine himself. With Cronenbergian consequences.
The Fly is one of those movies that uses its technical limitations to its advantage. IMDB calls it a horror / sci fi, but there’s nothing approaching horrific until almost the end. Seth doesn’t jump in his teleportation pod until the half way mark. The grotesque consequences don’t become apparent for another 15 or 20 minutes after that. It builds characters, it builds atmosphere, it builds tension, it builds reasons to give a crap about these people.
When The Fly gets made for a third time, which seems inevitable, you just know that the main character will be teleporting himself in the first 10 minutes so the movie can hurry up and get to its computer generated man-fly. Then it’ll be nothing but one action set piece after another as he uses his evolving power for more and more ludicrous shit. But in 1986, armed with just make up, puppets and practical effects, Cronenberg had to rely on character and story to make this kind of high concept craziness fly.
There is one moment though when its vintage really worked to The Fly’s disadvantage. The casual nature in which Seth and Veronica deal with the horrible mutilation of a baboon is pretty gross. They only care about it because it represents a failure of Seth’s machine. One advantage of modern day, PC movie making is that the characters wouldn’t be so flippant about turning a monkey inside out. Of course I know it didn’t really happen, but the way this movie reacted to it made me like the characters a little less.