Insect Politics: How a fly made us see our bodies in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986)

I know what the disease wants… it wants to turn me into something else. That’s not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.

Seth Brundle – The Fly (1986)

In February 2013, Animation Domination released a YouTube video called ‘Scientifically Accurate: Spider-Man’. The animation strips Peter Parker of his blue and red unitard and explains that a man who actually ‘does whatever a spider can’ would be horrifying. For example, did you know a spider’s genitals fall off after mating? Poor Mary Jane.

The joke of Peter Parker being as much of a spider as Bruce Wayne is a bat is not new. But why is it when we splice a human with an animal in a story, they only usually receive the enhancements? Peter Parker can climb the walls, shoot webs and use spidey senses (which is sort of a real thing). But he seemed to bypass that spiders cannot eat solids so they vomit enzymes on their food and mash it into a ‘paste’ before slurping it up.

There are good and bad sides to being any animal. Being a human is pretty great, but we can get fatal diseases. So you could be a crocodile, with an immune system that has proven stronger than ours. But that means you’ll then have to worry about being skinned alive and turned into a handbag. In the world envisioned on Dr Moreau’s island, you can’t pick and choose what animal traits you get. You might get a Greenland shark’s lifespan, but you’d also be incredibly slow and most likely blind.

David Cronenberg’s 1986 horror sci-fi ‘The Fly’ treats the fusion of a man and an insect as a slow metamorphosis that both enhances and destroys both beings. In this post, we will explore how the common housefly is used to increase the impact of the film’s themes and characters.

The Story

Photo credit: sergio souza from Pexels.

If you’ve already seen the film and don’t need reminding, you can skip to the next section. For everyone else, spoilers ahead.

The story is about a scientist called Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), who has created a teleportation machine. Every sci-fi has its own teleportation method, so this is how Brundle’s works:

  1. You go inside a metal ‘pod’ totally naked.
  2. The door to the pod shuts and locks some reason.
  3. The computer identifies you down to a molecular level.
  4. You disintegrate? Get pulled apart by the atom? You disappear.
  5. You get put back together in an identical pod on the other side of the room.
  6. The door unlocks and opens and voila! You’re now naked on the other side of the room.

So not quite as sophisticated as Star Trek. This is Brundle’s machine, but there’s a problem: he can only transport inanimate objects, not living things. Even though this machine could revolutionise the logistics industry and cut air pollution dramatically, Brundle insists that it’s not ready unless it can transport people. He tells his woes to a journalist called Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) and they make a deal. She gets to document him completing his machine instead of just publishing a half-arsed story about it in a magazine.

Brundle tries the machine out on a baboon. Unfortunately, the poor thing is turned inside out. After seeing an inside-out baboon, Veronica thinks ‘hey, you’re cute’ and sleeps with Brundle. Their lovemaking awakens him to the solution to his problem: the machine doesn’t really know what flesh is because it’s a machine. It’s going on Brundle’s limited knowledge of the poetry of the body, so when it puts a living thing back together it’s not quite right; it’s the machine’s interpretation rather than the reality. It’s like when you see a robot that looks like a human, you always know that it’s not human however lifelike it may appear. But a machine might think ‘yeah that’s totally a human’. So Brundle must teach the machine to get excited about the flesh, not just create something synthetic.

Computers are dumb. They only know what you tell them… I must not know enough about the flesh myself. I’m going to have to learn.

Seth Brundle – The Fly (1986)

He tries the baboon again (he has two baboons), and this one teleports intact. Veronica leaves Brundle to celebrate alone to deal with some ex-boyfriend-but-he’s-also-my-boss drama. Brundle gets jealous and drunk and tells his pet baboon he’s going to try and teleport himself. He strips off and gets in the pod but, unknown to him, a housefly has flown into the pod with him.

Brundle teleports successfully, but the fly seems to have disappeared…

The rest of the film is the slow metamorphosis of Brundle. After teleporting, he discovers he can do new things like handstands, punching through walls, bumping into open windows. That last one was a joke. He feels amazing, like a whole new person. But Veronica and the audience can see something is wrong. The texture of his skin looks unusual and there are big fat wiry hairs growing on his back.

You look bad. You smell bad.

Veronica Quaife – The Fly (1986)

But soon even Brundle, who has become more arrogant and aggressive, starts to notice peculiarities. In one gruesome scene, he pulls out one of his fingernails and squirts puss from his fingers. He starts to wonder if he’s dying. Then comes the revelation the audience has probably figured out by now: Brundle’s machine tells him that when he was teleported with the fly they spliced on a molecular-genetic level. Basically, Brundle is now half man and half fly.

At this point, it is worth mentioning that this film is a remake of the 1958 Vincent Price film of the same name. That film is an adaptation of a short story by George Langelaan in Playboy Magazine. The premise is very similar in that a scientist invents a teleportation machine and accidentally uses it with a fly. However, in this version the horrible result is seen immediately as the scientist comes out of the machine with a giant head of a fly. Meanwhile, a fly is buzzing around with the tiny head of the scientist. Many of you may remember the parody of this from a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode.

No. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Veronica Quaife – The Fly (1986)

But for a director fascinated by infection, disease and identity like Cronenberg, a simple head transplant wasn’t going to cut it. As hilarious as Jeff Goldblum’s head on a fly would have been, in the remake the change is slow and nauseating. When Veronica visits Brundle later on, she finds her lover barely able to walk, eating copious amounts of sugar (by vomiting on it), his teeth are falling out, his skin has tumorous-like growths all over it, his ears are falling off. If anyone has ever watched a loved one die of a disease, this is probably a distressing film to watch.

To add even more drama, Veronica discovers she is pregnant with Brundle’s child and doesn’t know if it was conceived before or after he teleported. Is there a human-fly hybrid growing inside her? In a nightmare birth scene, Veronica gives birth to a giant maggot. She goes to Brundle to tell him she is on her way to get an abortion and finds that he has changed even more. He is unrecognisable now, barely able to move properly from the deformities all over his body. Every time a small body part falls off, he stores it in his medicine cabinet; a ‘natural museum of Brundle’. Veronica isn’t able to tell him about the abortion, but hears what is essentially his breakup speech to her.

Brundle: Have you heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects don’t have politics. They’re very brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first insect politician. You see, I’d like to, but… I’m afraid, uh…
Veronica: I don’t know what you’re trying to say.
Brundle: I’m saying… I’m saying I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now that dream is over and the insect is awake.
Veronica: No. No, Seth…
Brundle: I’m saying… I’ll hurt you if you stay.

The Fly (1986)

Veronica leaves in tears and goes to the hospital to have the abortion. It’s not clear how Brundle figures out what she’s up to, but he smashes through the hospital window and kidnaps her back to his apartment. Remember Veronica’s boss-who-is-also-her-ex? Well he decides to not be terrible and tries to save her armed with a shotgun. But Brundle retaliates and melts the ex’s hand and ankle with his acid vomit. The Brundlefly monster tells Veronica that he’s figured out how to fix this: they both must teleport together and come out the other end as one being. With Veronica’s baby still inside her, he says they’ll be the ultimate family. Veronica understandably has some objections to this plan, especially after Brundlefly evolves into his final form.

We’ll be the ultimate family. A family of three joined together in one body. More human than I am alone.

Seth Brundle – The Fly (1986)

So it turns out what’s really been happening to Brundle is that his outer skin has been acting as a cocoon for the actual human/fly hybrid underneath. Now that the hybrid is complete, his human skin just kind of… falls off. So poor Veronica has to watch this guy’s head fall apart and his eyes pop out of their sockets to reveal an insectoid beast underneath with huge eyes and long claws. Behind the scenes, the incredible makeup and special effects was created by Chris Walas, who also made the Gremlins in the 1984 film. The beast shoves Veronica in the teleportation pod while he gets in the other one. But her handless and footless ex somehow finds the strength to grab his gun and shoot her door open. Because it’s a film, there’s a countdown on the computer until the teleporting happens and it reaches zero just when Brundle is leaving his pod. So on the other end, he’s now half man, half fly and half machine. Do the maths.

At this point Brundle knows he’s royally screwed, crawling along the floor as a mash of flesh and metal. In the end scene he grabs the barrel of the shot gun Veronica is holding to his head, begging her to end his suffering. She doesn’t want to at first, the sadness of the situation overwhelming her.

Finally, she takes aim and blows his head off. The End. Overall, the film grossed over $20 million worldwide and won the Academy Award for Best Makeup.

Analysis

Image credit: Pixabay from Pexels.

One of the ways to explore how an animal is used in a film is to ask: why this animal? Why couldn’t Brundle have been spliced with his baboon, or a cat, or another insect like a moth, a bee or a mosquito? Obviously the animal had to be small enough to get into the pod without Brundle knowing, but that doesn’t rule out other insects. A deeper look into flies may hold the answers.

The housefly (what appears in the film) is considered a pest, there are a wide range of tools you can buy to kill them. They are annoying to us, they come into our homes uninvited and fly in our face. They are not pretty like butterflies or as essential to our well being as bees (although they do play a part in breaking down and recycling organic matter). We attach a certain revulsion to flies because they perch themselves on our food and lay eggs on rotting things and faeces. When we hear the sound of flies, we associate it with something unclean. They gain from our existence (i.e. from rotting food), but we gain very little from theirs. Flies can carry pathogens that can contaminate food and cause illness, but some species have been used in laboratories to study ageing.

Of their more interesting biological traits, their feet act as taste buds to detect whether the food they land on is edible. The females mate once, while the males do it multiple times. The adults have a life cycle of around a month and can process visual information much quicker than us, so we appear to move in slow motion from their perspective. It’s also worth noting that fruit flies have a very similar genetic code to us and are therefore used in genetic research labs.

In the Western world, that is basically our relationship with flies. On the surface, it is fairly negative. They are a commonplace animal in our lives, but not ones many of us would desire a deeper relationship with unless you wished to study them. Insects in general seem to live on another plain of existence to us and they experience the world differently.

So why a fly?

1. As flies are commonplace, especially in a city, it is more believable that a fly would randomly find itself in the pod unnoticed.

2. It is essential to the story that Brundle finds out about the fly later on and the revelation dawns on him. He would notice a colourful butterfly or a big furry bee in the pod with him.

3. A mosquito or a knat would also go unnoticed, even more so than a fly. But maybe for the time, location and society the film is set in, a fly would be more universally recognisable for the audience.

The Emotional Core

Photo credit: fotografierende from Pexels

There are practical reasons why the story uses a fly, mostly to do with its size. But the film also uses our disassociation with flies in order to enhance the emotional core of the film. In an essay on the film for Empire magazine, Adam Smith states that: “Science fiction has rarely been this emotionally powerful or, ironically for a film with a mutant insect at its centre, so deeply human.” The Fly is a body horror and also a love story. On the one hand, you have the horror of Brundle genetically transforming into an insect/human hybrid, and on the other hand you have the romance between Brundle and Veronica. This leads to the tragic ending of Veronica killing the man she loves.

So the use of opposing genres means that the story has higher conflict and appeal. But the conflict is heightened further by the use of an insect. Film critic Gerardo Valero, picked by Roger Ebert for his review, suggested that Goldblum’s “natural oddness” provided comic relief for the part. Brundle is a likeable character and we want him to succeed in his scientific endeavours. We also enjoy the romance between him and Veronica, especially as Brundle is charmingly inexperienced in this area. Then, as Don Kaye explains in his article, Cronenberg takes this sweet character and makes us watch his “forced evolution” into a “new, brutal form of life that knew nothing of love but only survival and domination”. When Brundle knows that his mind is being taken over by the insect within, he explains to Veronica that he is becoming a being of instinct.

It mated us, me and the fly. We hadn’t even been properly introduced.

Seth Brundle – The Fly (1986)

His ‘Insect Politics’ speech sums it all up. Insects don’t have politics, they don’t discuss and philosophise (as far as we know), they are preoccupied with survival and carrying on their species. In contrast, humans are often guided by emotion and compassion. So fusing a human with a fly is fusing two opposite beings. This is a fusion that knaws away at everything that makes humans, human. Dominic Preston’s article reinforces this point: “It’s about a man losing his humanity, his personality shifting just as frequently – and violently – as his body parts.”

We don’t usually attach emotion to flies, they are pests from our perspective. We don’t have the capacity to connect intimately with them like we do with dogs and cats. Their way of life is alien to us, which feeds the notion that a human/fly hybrid would just be a monster. Veronica cannot accept the fly half of Brundle, even though the other half is the man she loves. This is the irony Adam Smith describes, the film is surprisingly “deeply human” despite it being about a mutant insect because we find it difficult connecting with insects compared to quirky and lovable people like Brundle.

In a deleted scene, Brundle tries to find a solution to his problem by teleporting the remaining baboon and a cat together. The result is a horrific monster that he kills brutally. This scene was cut because test audiences thought it too violent and cruel. So audiences can stomach a human/fly hybrid and its tragic death. But a monkey/cat hybrid? That’s the line. We, understandably, attach more sentimental emotions to fluffy animals like cats and monkeys than we do to insects. We feel sympathy for Brundle and his struggle, but ultimately there is a relief when Veronica shoots his head off.

Body Horror

Photo credit: Egor Kamelev from Pexels

In Cronenberg’s eyes, Brundle’s transformation was a metaphor for ageing and death, an almost universal fear we hold. A rather brilliant essay on The Fly by Brian Eggert in Deep Focus Review explains that Brundle is a man who values the mind and dismisses the body. He even wears the same clothes everyday so he doesn’t have to think about it. His predicament forces him to confront his own body, to make his machine work and then to save his life. At first, he is excited about the changes in his body like his enhanced strength and appetites. He even gets impatient with Veronica, who he thinks isn’t as ‘enlightened’ as him.

You’re afraid to dive into the plasma pool, aren’t you? You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t you? I’ll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don’t you? But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick, gray, fear of the flesh. Drink deep, or taste not, the plasma spring! Y’see what I’m saying? And I’m not just talking about sex and penetration. I’m talking about penetration beyond the veil of the flesh! A deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool!

Seth Brundle – The Fly (1986)

But then his body starts to fall apart and he’s storing bits of him in his medicine cabinet. If we were really harsh, we could say that this is Brundle’s punishment for not valuing his body enough. He did put it in great danger by using the machine on himself. Now he gets to experience his body in all its glory, and then watch it wither and die along with his brilliant mind.

But what does this have to do with the fly? The idea of a fly crawling and growing under your skin is great nightmare fuel for a horror film. It probably wouldn’t make you afraid of flies, but the next time one buzzes around it could make you cringe in disgust. But there’s more to it than that.

We associate flies with disease and things that are dirty. When a fly lands in our drink, we throw the whole glass away. When a cartoonist wants to make a character look dirty, they animate flies buzzing around them. So a man fused with a fly makes us feel disgust for them, it makes their problem seem like a disease. When we see others suffer with a disease, we automatically look at our own mortality. It’s a reminder that life is fragile and one day our bodies can turn against us. It’s not like Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider and getting superpowers, it’s a ‘dirty animal’ crawling under your skin until it starts falling off. The Fly is a body horror film that uses our negative perception of flies to amp up our repulsion and make us look at our own fragile bodies. It expresses the truth that we can’t escape the decay of our bodies so we shouldn’t take them for granted. Preston goes on to say in his article that the film is a “tour de force of disgust” as the director finds “new and increasingly repulsive ways to make us look down at our own fleshy forms with slow-dawning concern”.

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly. Perhaps she’ll die.

Seth Brundle – The Fly (1986)

The story is about how Brundle has alienated himself from his body at his peril. After he teleports, he sees it as a purification and embraces all the things he couldn’t do before. It’s only Veronica who is sceptical. Brundle can’t see how bad he looks, how erratic he’s becoming. Bodily changes like that don’t happen overnight, so something strange must happening. Brundle is so detached from his body he doesn’t even recognise when it’s not his anymore. It’s only when he starts squirting puss from his fingertips that he thinks something is wrong.

Herein lies another reason to use a fly. A fly’s bodily functions are so different from our own, they make the perfect metaphor for how we alienate ourselves from our body. Vomiting acid because your teeth have fallen out so you can’t chew is not normal human biology. In Eggert’s essay, he states that bodily excretions like vomit, bile and sweat are things “we attempt to conceal for fear of social rejection”. So Brundle’s fly-like behaviour is uncomfortable to watch. He even acknowledges this after vomiting in front of Veronica to eat a doughnut.

Conclusion

Photo credit: Pixabay from Pexels.

Flies have been given a really bad image in this post. Every being has its purpose in this world, no matter what our experience is of them. Flies have a part to play in nature that should not be downplayed. For example, they are a food source for other animals. But despite all the ways this film uses our disgust towards flies to push its themes of disease and death, it also teaches us an important life lesson.

Flies are depicted as beings of instinct, they are the extreme opposites of humans. While we love and reflect, they survive and act. We are guilty of dismissing our bodies, they seemingly are guilty of dismissing their minds. You shouldn’t wallow too much in your emotions, but you shouldn’t live without them either. But if you found a balance between the two, between the body and the mind, you will have a better quality of life. Ignoring either will catch up with you. Your body will break down or your mental health will suffer. This film teaches us not to live in extremes. Don’t be like Brundle, respect your body and the mind.

Despite the title of the film, the character that is ignored the most is the fly. When it was teleported, did it have its own arc after fusing with Brundle’s mind? Did it suddenly realise that it had been ignoring its mind and just focusing on the body? Was it the fly who wanted to die at the end, or Brundle? Just something to think about.

What do you think about how flies are depicted in The Fly or other films? Do you think they get a negative portrayal? What is your experience of flies? Would you want to be fused with one? Comment below!

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The Fly (1986) is available to watch on Google Play!

Source list:

The Fly (1986) – available on Google Play

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Disclaimer: This post is not sponsored in any way and does not make any money from any person or company mentioned in this post.

2 thoughts on “Insect Politics: How a fly made us see our bodies in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986)”

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