Quick question, what does ‘Disney’ say to you? Princesses? Superheroes? Mega-monolithic corporate conglomerates? Disney’s ceaseless consumption of its competitors culminated recently in the takeover of 20th Century Studios to supply a plentiful back catalogue as it thrust itself into the streaming service game. The result is something no one could have predicted 20 years ago: that you can now watch David Cronenberg’s revolting grotesque gogglefest The Fly under the Disney banner. Mickey Mouse this ain’t.
As someone who has written hundreds of film reviews there comes a point where it is impossible for me to ignore certain blind spots. I can’t watch every film ever made, but some directors have such a profound impact on movie making that sometimes it is important to go back to the source.
With the proliferation of streaming services, it’s almost guaranteed that any major movie will be available somewhere, twitching in anticipation. The Fly is my first David Cronenberg movie, and arguably his most famous release.
Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, The World According To Jeff Goldblum) is on the verge of a major discovery and throws caution to the wind to show off his creation to beautiful journalist Ronnie Quaife (Geena Davis): a teleportation device. His pods can take apart inanimate objects in one unit and materialise them in the other thanks to a computer programmed by Brundle, but the system cannot handle organic matter, causing test subjects to be turned inside out.
It’s not a surprise what happens next. Even if you aren’t familiar with the film, the title and artwork give away that things are not going to go well for Brundle when he drunkenly decides to test the system on himself. Such full-on body horror can only connect beyond visceral disgust if there is enough character work to get us on board with the players, especially because The Fly has a very limited cast.
Cronenberg makes excellent use of Goldblum’s uniquely charming affable nature. Early scenes portray Brundle warmly, his seclusion induced social oddness more than made up by a boyish desire to share the fun. Geena Davis’ role, in lesser hands, could have dissolved into nothing more than a vessel into which Brundle pours his thoughts, feelings, and flesh.
Davis finds the character in Ronnie and pulls her presence above mere female enabler into something both vulnerable and strong. Her efforts to save Brundle from his sickening decay are thoroughly believable as a result.
We’re here for the physical effects work though, aren’t we? The Fly has a reputation for being a stomach churner and this is entirely justified. Brundle’s initial euphoria at his success is twinned with a celebration of the body. Sex and sweat and strength are steamed into the celluloid, acting to further heighten Brundle’s inexorable corruption and collapse.
Whether it be a slow disgusting act such as the removal of fingernails, or a sudden shock such as corrosive acid vomit, or even the sloughing of skin and limbs, we are right there with every disgusting dereliction of Brundle’s dwindling humanity.
The limited cast and setting does mean that, like Brundle, we have little inkling of the outside world. Nothing matters but his work and nothing is important but his transformation.
Through glimmers of Goldblum’s humanity and Davis’ scene filling skills Cronenberg imbues The Fly with a finely balanced pacing so that your eyes don’t dart around the room in distraction. Yet if you come back to the movie for a rewatch it will be to once again dry heave at the sickening physical effects, not to dab your eyes at the tragedy of subtext at the human condition.
Words by Mike Record