Reflecting on David Cronenberg’s The Fly
Three decades on, The Fly's blend of ideas and gore is as potent as ever. In the age of video-on-demand, we wonder if new generations will still stumble across this smart and squelchy sci-fi in the future
Looking back at David Cronenberg's The Fly as it turns thirty, it seems to perfectly encapsulate all that was great about 80s cinema. Suspicion of technology, fear of the future, copious amounts of slime – it had it all. It follows scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and his attempts to change the world for the better with his new invention, a pair of revolutionary teleportation pods. When a housefly accidentally joins Brundle on his inaugural telepod trip, however, genes are spliced and fates are sealed.
As we follow his slow and gruesome transformation into something entirely new to science (the aptly-named Brundlefly), it’s hard not to think about what could’ve been. Under all the rotten flesh and gloop, lurks a large chunk of regret, missed opportunity and darkness. There’s just something troubling about all that promise ending in such a lonely place.
It could be argued that the 80s had the best movie ideas, but lacked the technical wit to actually do them all justice. Little did filmmakers know at the time, these barriers were in fact charm generators: all those shortcuts and rough-and-ready make-up techniques are now the most fondly remembered scenes of all, and few films have more of these than The Fly. It’s one of the reasons why it holds up so well, a time-stamped product of its era.
Its ideas still hold up too. At the time, people thought Cronenberg was making a comment on AIDS with Brundle’s speedy and unfortunate transformation. Reflecting on it now, Brundle’s fate is eerily resonant of our current generation’s crippling need to better ourselves, at any cost. Brundle had his telepods to help carve his name into the history books; we have the internet. Both will do whatever it takes to succeed, going to reckless or even dangerous lengths. “You’re jealous!” accuses a clammy Jeff Goldblum mid-transformation to his girlfriend, Veronica, played by a worried Geena Davis. With so much online personality sculpting going on these days, it’s not just Seth Brundle who’s green-eyed and paranoid.
Much has changed since The Fly’s release, including the very way in which audiences discover films like The Fly. In my case, I bought a battered VHS copy of the film from a dusty video store as a teenager. (This was back in the late 90s, right around the time I’d made the bulletproof decision to start collecting video tapes because it wasn’t like they were going anywhere anytime soon and right now, they were really cheap for some reason.)
I’d crossed paths with the movie while channel-hopping, so had only seen snippets. I’d glimpsed some gore, heard rumours about its outlandish spectacle and was instantly intrigued. But back then, you couldn’t just google a film, access all its trivia and watch a YouTube montage of its best bits within the space of three seconds. You had to go out into the physical world and find it.
It’s difficult to fully quantify the impact wandering around video rental shops – be it a Blockbusters or a cigarette smoke-filled family chain – once had on shaping film tastes. It was a rite-of-passage. There was always that one film that was never in stock or the video box with the cover art so cool you didn’t even need to know about its story, you just knew you had to see it. The Fly was one of those films. I’m still searching all corners of the internet for long-forgotten titles that I remember purely from those video trips in my youth. Which reminds me, if you’ve got a copy of Spaced Invaders, hit me up.
Later I worked in a video store myself, spending countless hours manning a desk with a Clerks-like expression on my face because I usually wasn’t even suppose to be there that day. And while family-run shops were long-extinct and the Blockbuster chain wasn’t looking too healthy, that treasure hunt mentality was still alive and well. Making recommendations to punters who wanted nothing more than a decent time-killer for a Sunday afternoon was all part of the experience, too. They, in turn, were transported down a cinematic sidepath that they may have otherwise ignored.
Kids born post-2010, the year Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy, will never have those experiences. You might argue Netflix provides a similar substitute, but it’s more insular and less social. While water-cooler hits like Stranger Things and Making a Murderer rise to the top, more obscure but no less compelling titles go ignored. There is no snarky desk monkey with a name badge to point them out and potentially influence your cinematic tastes forever.
Maybe 2016’s answer to The Fly is lurking in Netflix's digital depths. In fact, I’m sure it is, but audiences these days are none the wiser. Like Seth Brundle, the home entertainment market experienced a stark transformation in a scarily short period of time. It’s been pulled apart and put back together as something unrecognisable and completely new. Let’s hope there aren’t any hidden side-effects.