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June, 2009 : Essay:

Nerds in Love

A number of years ago a student in one of my film classes did his term paper comparing the 1958 version of The Fly with David Cronenberg's 1986 remake. His argument was that the earlier version was better because it didn't have a lot of icky special effects, and the story focused on the scientist whose experiment had gone horribly wrong instead of the romantic triangle at the heart of the remake. He defined his standards well, applied them to the films, and drew the obvious conclusion. I gave him an A. I also felt he was completely wrong.

Film criticism is opinion, not received wisdom, and so the fact that he disagreed with me was less important than the fact that he presented his thesis well. However I did note on his paper that I did disagree with him, and that the '58 film was little more than a lurid potboiler while the remake was one of the best films of the 1980s. Note I didn't say one of the best science fiction films. I think it is one of the best of the genre, but it goes beyond that. I think it is one of the best films of the decade, without qualification.

When I teach the film the first thing I have to do is warn the students to take Chris Walas's Oscar-winning special effects in stride. Yes, they're icky and gooey, but they're not there just for the shock effect. When Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) completes his transformation into what he calls "Brundlefly," the character is played by a puppet. Yet at that point we are so invested in the character that we sense Goldblum's presence even though there's no reason to believe he was even on the set when those final scenes were shot.

Ordinarily my discussion of the film focuses on the romantic triangle between Seth, Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), and Stathis Borens (John Getz). Stathis is the editor of the science magazine Veronica had worked for, and also her ex-lover. He is a creep in many ways, showing up at her apartment to take a shower because he still had a key. Yet in a film in which all three of the leads are broken people, it's hard to say that he is worse than the other two. When Veronica discovers she is pregnant by Seth, it is Stathis who is by her side as she seeks to abort what is almost certainly a horrible mutant. (That's director Cronenberg as the OB/GYN, by the way, fulfilling the punchline of Martin Scorsese's surprised reaction upon meeting the director of The Brood and Scanners: "You look like a Beverly Hills gynecologist.")

That triangle is there, and it is the answer to those who moronically deny something is science fiction because "it's about people." There's no question that "The Fly" is a science fiction/horror story, and yet it is undeniably about people as well. It is essentially a chamber piece, as these three characters try to work out their fates in the horrific situation in which they find themselves.

For the purposes of this essay, however, I'd like to come at the film from a slightly different angle. This is a movie about us: the nerds, the geeks, the ones who preferred science or English class in high school to football or planning for the senior prom. It's a romantic tragedy about the problems smart people face, rather than focusing on winning the big game or becoming prom queen.

As Seth, Jeff Goldblum is the science nerd turned into romantic hero. His problem is not that he's the former nerd, but that he lacks the experience to handle being the hero. Veronica meets him at a party for cutting edge scientists and he promises her if she comes back to his place she'll see something really amazing. It sounds like a line, and she says as much, but he's serious. He's been working on something that will truly change the world if he can work the bugs out, so to speak: transporting matter through space by breaking it down at one end and reconstituting it at the other. He operates alone, farming out pieces of the project for others to work out, but remaining the only one who knows the end goal. (In that sense he also serves as a surrogate for the film's director.) Seth is eager to share his accomplishment with someone, and Veronica—a stunning and articulate science journalist—is the answer to his prayers. He's not ready to go public, though, and panics when he realizes she's ready to write him up immediately. They negotiate a deal where she will sit on the story while being given exclusive access to his working out the one great flaw he has yet to solve: transporting flesh as opposed to inanimate objects.

Seth is the nerd's nerd. He can rhapsodize about the "romance of the flesh" but he has reduced his wardrobe to numerous sets of the exact same clothes so that he never has to worry about what to wear. When Veronica becomes genuinely interested in not only his work but in him, he is stunned. One can imagine that his romantic life has been nil, waiting in vain for the time when he will meet the woman who will finally appreciate him on his own terms, and here she is. That ought to lead to a happy and satisfying ending in which Seth finally comes into his own. That is not to be. Seth can't quite believe his good fortune or the fact that Veronica really cares for him. When she goes off to deal with Stathis, who is threatening to run a story about Seth in spite of her agreement to wait, Seth completely misreads the situation. She says she's going to "scrape off" the remains of her past, as if Stathis is something she stepped in, but Seth becomes jealous, convinced that she is seeing her old lover because she still has feelings for him.

This is what is at the core of "The Fly." Seth conducts the experiment that leads to his being "spliced" to a fly out of a sense of revenge. Veronica has gone off, and he doesn't get that she's not betraying him but is, in fact, acting out of a sense of loyalty to him. His interpersonal skills are so underdeveloped that he can only respond with jealousy. He simply can't accept that this beautiful, brainy woman likes him. As a result, he does the wrong thing, leading to all that horrific goo and gore.

On the old Mary Tyler Moore Show (this was in the '70s for you youngsters) there was an episode in which a couple of Mary's friends commiserate about how horrible high school was for them. One of them notes that only two people are happy in high school: the captain of the football team and the head of the cheerleading squad. Everyone else, for whatever reason, feels they have fallen short. While Mary reluctantly admits she was head of the cheerleading squad, the joke works because it applies to all the rest of us. Wherever we were in high school, we felt inadequate and our nervous fumblings and unrequited loves were a big part of it.

Seth Brundle resonates for us because he is us. When that great love comes along later in life there's still that adolescent inside telling us we're not quite worthy and that he/she will soon wake up and realize that a terrible mistake has been made. That's Seth's dilemma. When Veronica heads off to settle her score with Stathis, Seth leaps to the conclusion that she is somehow being unfaithful to him, leading him to take the stupid risk that transforms him into "Brundlefly." That's what makes it science fiction and that's what makes it scary.

Yet all that goo doesn't gainsay the real human emotions that are driving the film. At times nearly all of us feel like we're frauds who are only a step away from being exposed as the inadequate dweebs we suspect we really are. That's why the Cronenberg remake of "The Fly" is so powerful. Where the 1958 version has all sorts of scientific inconsistencies and exists mostly for its now dated shock value, the remake affects us not because of its gore, but because it cuts too close to the bone. Deep down we're afraid that the loves of our lives are just in it for themselves and are ready to head for the exit when something better comes along.

It may not be rational, but it's human. Ironically, for Seth Brundle, the price for learning this is that he loses his own humanity in the process.


Copyright © 2009, Daniel M. Kimmel. All Rights Reserved.

About Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His reviews can be found at rottentomatoes.com. He is local correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University, including a course on SF. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2004), received the Cable Center Book Award. He is also author of The Dream Team -- The Rise and Fall of DreamWorks: Lessons from the New Hollywood . His essay, "The Batman We Deserve," appears in Batman Unauthorized, an entry in the SmartPop series from BenBella Books. His latest book is I'll Have What She's Having -- Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.

COMMENTS!

Jun 4, 02:41 by IROSF
Comment below!
Jun 4, 14:08 by Scott Lawson
Nicely written and well argued. I have never thought about that movie that way.
Jun 4, 14:25 by Daniel M. Kimmel
Thank you. That to me is the job of film criticism (as opposed to simply reviewing). It's to get you to see a film in a new way and then make you want to go back and see the film again.
Jun 4, 16:48 by Mark Leeper
Dan usually writes a provocative article with a lot of thought. Frequently I disagree with his conclusions, but I think we agree that reviewing is all very subjective. As we have discussed in the past I prefer the 1958 version and apparently I am not alone. The B-movie podcast recently ran a survey of which FLY film people prefer. The results are at [A=URL]http://answers.polldaddy.com/poll/1346831/?view=results[/A]. Voting for the best fly movie 63% thought the 1958 was the best and 29% voted for the 1986.

From my interpretation the 1958 version draws on Oedipus Rex. Here is a man who has everything that would make a man happy. He is a genius. He loves his world-bending work. He loves his family. They have more money than they know what to do with. This man really has everything anyone could really want in this life. Then with one moment of carelessness, more innocent than Oedipus's moment, he lost everything. And it all comes home in one small move when he lays Helene down and naturally goes to kiss her and realizes he has lost even the capability of doing that. It is worse than losing his fortune, he has lost his human-ness without losing his humanity. To me that is a very powerful moment. I cannot think of any other film that does anything like that. Visually this version is lushly filmed drawing on the production design style of A-film melodramas like those directed by Douglas Sirk. I think that is intentional. It adds a richness to the feel of the film.

In the 1986 version I do not see Seth as the vulnerable character that Dan sees him. Nerdy he is, but nerdy he is proud of being. He lives in his own world. He strikes me as having a very strong ego. I am not sure Dan's description fits this story any better than any film in which one lover is jealous of another. If anything Seth has a stronger self-esteem than most jealous lovers in similar stories.

The earlier film sort of hand-waves over how matter transmission works, which is probably the right way to go. The 1986 version specifically tells the viewer that the computer has found a different DNA in the transmitter and got confused. Any idea how many organisms we carry around with us wherever we go? There are easily thousands (or maybe much more) of different organisms, each with their own DNA patterns. And I think some are symbiotic and necessary. The transmitter would have to properly send at least the beneficial ones. The visiting fly is really redundant with all the other beasties that humans carry around with them.
Jun 10, 13:45 by JM Cornwell
I'm not a big fan of goo and gore but when it comes packaged like Cronenberg's The Fly I was mesmerized. What got me the first time I saw it were the relationships between the main characters. You're exactly right.

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