Seth Brundle, the tragic genius at the core of The Fly (1986), is motivated to crack the secrets of teleportation not only because such innovation will challenge established concepts of time and space, but also because he suffers from motion sickness—teleportation means never having to set foot in a propelled vehicle again. This bit of character eccentricity is one of the many ingenious details that have allowed The Fly to endure these last 25 years, not only as what may be the defining synthesis of every major theme in David Cronenberg’s filmography, but as the modern big-budget genre film that synthesized an intelligent query into the most vital and troubling issues faced by contemporary philosophers, scientists and policy-makers with an absolutely primal and inspired display of body horror theatrics. There is no other movie at once so smart and so disgusting. Indeed, The Fly features what remains the most astonishing vomit scene—wait, make that scenes—in cinema history. (A word of warning to the uninitiated: do not watch this movie while eating yogurt.)
Rooted in the 1957 short story by George Langelaan and, of course, the Vincent Price film of the same title (1958), The Fly is several things: a chamber love triangle between Brundle, a journalist (Geena Davis) trying to file and article for a magazine named Particle, and her editor (John Getz); a science fiction about a man who accidentally gets into a machine with an insect and pays the abysmal consequences; and a shock-meditation on aging, death, and what it means to be human. “Am I dying?” Brundle wonders after his successful self-teleportation with insect co-pilot begins to exact its gooey toll on his flesh. (“His” flesh? Or something else? Teleportation obliterates form in order to recreate it elsewhere.) This being a Cronenberg film, whatever existential terror or grief Brundle feels en route to becoming Brundle-fly is eclipsed by unquenchable fascination. Other versions of Langelaan’s ‘Fly’ had its protagonist lose his ability to speak relatively early in the story; Cronenberg insisted that his Brundle keep his tongue nimble as long as possible—he wanted Brundle to articulate what was happening to him until the very end, at which point a single, unbearably sad gesture is all that’s needed for the experiment to reach its dire conclusion.
Much credit has to be given to Goldblum, whose toothy, lanky charisma, dry humour and quiet showmanship rendered him one of Cronenberg’s perfect alter egos: a smart man of action; a geek with sex appeal; a guy who can endow the word "cheeseburger" with seductive magic. And Davis, Goldblum’s girlfriend at the time, is every bit his match, both intrigued and repulsed, in-love and loving and fiercely self-protective: her alarmed response to the possibility that she’s pregnant with Son of Brundle-fly is deeply affecting. Its fantastic narrative being awkwardly yet necessarily compressed, The Fly is not without its little flaws—a bit of boilerplate dialogue here, some garish lighting there; way too much showy pathos from Getz’s emasculated ex—but the immense power of its unnerving ideas, the complex dynamics of its tautly told story, and the nuanced performances of its two leads earn its status as some very peculiar sort of masterpiece.