‘The Fly’ – A Poignant Cronenberg Masterpiece About Disease’s Ravages

David Cronenberg’s The Fly goes beyond the realm of horror and science fiction. It is a film whose central core is how a person can be stricken with a terminal disease and what that person does to handle that disease. It is also about what happens to the people he/she loves. It is about the memories they share, no matter how brief or how long they are. It is also about the toll that disease takes on this person and on the people who care about them. It uses the ‘experiment gone horribly wrong’ as a brilliant metaphor for the physical ravages that a disease like AIDS or cancer can do to the human body. It is Jeff Goldblums’ finest achievement as an actor and it is David Cronenbergs’ masterpiece.

Behind the grotesque sci-fi trappings of his 1986 remake ‘The Fly’, David Cronenberg crafted an achingly intimate drama about disease and relationships. When a scientist accidentally splices his DNA with a housefly, his tragic physical and mental unraveling serves as metaphor for the real-life horrors of conditions like AIDS and cancer. Unflinching yet humane, the film explores decay and mortality with maturity and heartbreak.

After an experiment gone awry causes scientist Seth Brundle to begin mutating into an insect hybrid, he struggles to cling to his humanity while his beautiful new lover witnesses the harrowing transformation. As Seth’s mind and body slowly betray him, it tests the limits of their blossoming romance.

The story of a scientist who suffers the consequences of an experiment gone wrong has been done to death in the world of science fiction and horror. However, in Cronenbergs hands it is merely a stepping point. The Fly looks like a horror film. It even looks like a science fiction film. But it’s really neither. At its heart it is essentially a romance. What makes it horrifying is that it is a romance between a healthy woman and a man dying from a ‘disease’ that is changing him on a personal as well as a molecular-genetic level. This man is angry, confused and frightened by what’s happening to him. The tag of the film is “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”, but it is not the woman who is finally afraid but the man himself. He is afraid that he will die and will be forgotten. That he will only be remembered as a man who died of a horrile disease and not a brilliant scientist who did something to change the world to make it a better place. One can understand where he’s coming from. Take the late tennis player Arthur Ashe, for example. You could tell someone what a great tennis player he was and they might look at you and say “Didn’t he die of AIDS?” It doesn’t matter about what he did, but what he died of. The same could be said of Freddy Mercury or Amanda Blake.

In between the visceral horror of Seth’s metamorphosis, created by Oscar-winning makeup effects, the film centers its terror on his anguished emotions. We empathize with his anger, denial, confusion and desperation in the face of his ‘disease’. Behind the prosthetics, Jeff Goldblum crafts a tragic, vulnerable portrait of a brilliant mind slipping away.

Rather than cheap exploitation thrills, The Fly finds resonant truth in the trauma of disease. Cronenberg focuses on relationships under duress, making Seth’s decay painfully personal. Unflinching yet intimate, it confronts death with maturity, empathy and soul-baring intensity. In the hands of a lesser director, The Fly would have been just another horror movie. David Cronenberg refuses to allow that to happen. Thank you, Mr. Cronenberg. Thank you.