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—
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.