Genius scientist Brundle has found a way to transport matter instantly from one place to another, but when he tests his theory on himself he becomes a mutant - half man, half fly.
"I can be a sucker for a romantic story" remarked David Cronenberg on first seeing the script for The Fly. Frankly it's an odd declaration from the man who delivered the sadistic, perverse, downright stunning excesses of Shivers, Videodrome and Rabid. But then his concept of a "romantic story" is equally leftfield. What kind of romance has a sequence in which one of the subjects vomits milky enzymes on a doughnut before slurping up the resultant liquefying mess, or who splatters a mirror with puss squeezed from his degenerating fingertips? Or, as we find out half way through, keeps his penis in the bathroom medicine cabinet? Jerry Maguire this ain't.
But it's the romantic, melodramatic heart of Cronenberg's gooey fairytale that ensured that it became the Canadian native's biggest commercial hit bringing, for the first time, his work complete with all his trademark obsessions, to the attention of an audience for whom his name would call to mind a brand of imported lager more readily than one of the most challenging auteurs of modern cinema. Cronenberg's re-thinking of the original 1958 screenplay is full of imaginative innovations. While James Clavell's original screenplay has scientist Vincent Price happily married while he tinkers in the basement with his teleportation device, Cronenberg has Seth Brundle (a fantastically cast Jeff Goldblum whose bug-eyes and gangly limbs lend him a distinctly insectoid look from the start) an unmarried loner living in a detritus strewn loft pursued by science journalist and love interest Veronica Quaife (then wife Geena Davis).
More importantly, while in the original Vincent Price emerges as a somewhat ludicrous figure with a fly claw and a cloth over his head to disguise the "true horror" of his metamorphosis (not to mention the frankly Twilight Zone-esque cheapness of the end shot with a tiny man's head on a fly body squeaking "help me.") Cronenberg has Brundle emerge from his experimental teleportation pod apparently unchanged making his metamorphosis into Brundlefly the dramatic heart of the movie and leaving Veronica, like the audience, half fascinated and half repulsed by his slow physical decay and transformation. It's a re-working of Beauty And The Beast remixed for a technological age with the dramatic caveat that Beauty knows from the start that the man she is falling in love with will transform into a deeply unlovable creature.
Indeed, she must remain in love with Brundlefly even as he abducts her from an abortion clinic she has booked into to rid herself of their child. Or as he vomits on ex-boyfriend Strathis Borans (John Getz, delivering a character who in his own way metamorphoses from creepy ex-boyfriend to hero of the hour) reducing his arm and leg to bloody stumps. Purists may argue that The Fly is not science fiction at all but a horror movie, it certainly has all the spectacular gore and prosthetics of a scarefest but thematically it is much closer to Frankenstein than any other film,
and Frankenstein is much closer to science fiction than horror taking the subject of mankind's uneasy relationship with science as its theme.
Both Seth Brundle and Baron Frankenstein create monsters through their overpowering scientific curiosity and its attendant arrogance, but in Brundle's case the twist is that it is himself that he "creates". There are also nods to Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, another tale with the perversion of science rather than horror at its core. Cronenberg was attracted to the material partly because it so neatly reflected his own obsessions with our uneasy relationship with our bodies and their fleshy existence. Disease and mutation crop up in almost all his films but The Fly expresses Cronenberg's ideas in a mainstream movie for the first time.
And while he has said that it was not intended as a movie about Aids specifically (it was made in 1986 when fear of the disease was at its height) it's difficult not to see that unease as a crucial ingredient. But The Fly is not only a movie of ideas, it's a collection of great elements. Howard Shore's brooding, dramatic score; Geena Davis delivering what would become one of the most quoted poster taglines of all time (" Be afraid... Be very afraid."); Cronenberg himself appearing in one of the movie's most intense sequences as Veronica dreams she gives birth to a huge writhing maggot (an epilogue in which she actually spawns a "butterfly child" thus undercutting the tragedy was shot but tested badly and was disgarded) and a baboon being turned inside out. But it is the end sequence in which Brundlefly, now utterly unrecognisable having been fused with the technology itself, that devastates blending as it does all Cronenberg's themes: mutation, disease, love and death into a dramatic, melancholic conclusion.
"Every love story must end tragically," remarked Cronenberg. Brundle is betrayed not by his lover but by his own body before begging Veronica to shoot him. The movie concludes in an unimaginably grim shot of Brundle's twisted corpse, a mutilated, unconscious Borans and Veronica sobbing uncontrollably.
Science fiction has rarely been this emotionally powerful or, ironically for a film with a mutant insect at its centre, so deeply human.