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The Fly (1986)

The Fly (1986)

The story: Shy, reclusive research scientist Seth Brundle begins a relationship which is both professional and romantic with science reporter Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife who has to contend with the advances of her former boyfriend and editor of Particle magazine for whom she works.  When Seth uses himself as the subject of his project in teleportation, disaster ensues.

Cited by Time magazine as one of the ten best films of the year 1986, The Fly is a thankfully-loose adaptation of the 1958 film which unfortunately was faithful to the short story by George Langelaan on which the film was based.  In the original story, a housewife and mother has the unenviable task of finding a fly that has the (miniature) head of her husband when his experiment in teleportation goes awry so that the mistake can be corrected (as if the only heads of the two can be switched the second time).  The 1986 film by David Cronenberg reflects post-feminist sensibilities with the female protagonist as an unmarried professional.  The 1986 version is about the politics between men and women which need to change, the theme of the film.

      The word “change” is used on eight occasions in the story.  In the first scene, Seth Brundle encounters reporter Ronnie at a scientific gathering.

Seth: What am I working on?  I'm working on
            something that
will change the world
            and human life as we know it.

    Ronnie: Change it a lot or just a bit?

When Ronnie hints that others have made similar claims, Seth persists, “But they're not working on something that will change the world as we know it.”   After she sees a demonstration, he reiterates: “It'll change the world as we know it, right?”  The remark is a revealing one: What has more impact - technology or the effect of another human?   When Ronnie sees her editor Stathis Borans in her apartment, she comments: "I knew I should have changed the lock."  Ronnie inquires about Seth's dressing habits. 

Ronnie: Do you ever change your clothes ? ....

      Seth: .... I change my clothes every day.

Ronnie tells Seth: “You're changing, Seth.  Everything about you is changing.”   Seth mumbles when Ronnie visits him after their fight: “It changes every time I look in the mirror.”

      The film deals with many issues involving women’s rights.  It advocates making abortion a woman's choice: Male characters (Stathis, Seth, and a doctor) argue against a female (Ronnie) having an abortion.  Women have a right to control their destinies in the area of work: Ronnie is a working woman who at one point wants to work independently of her employer Stathis Borans after he showed no interest in a project she presented to him; when he changes his mind and deems the research valuable to his magazine, he finds a way of co-opting her story arguing that she is on his payroll and whatever she uncovers is his province.

      But the most egregious offense between the sexes is the area of sexual harassment.  At times, women are treated like objects.  After having an argument with his new girlfriend, Seth Brundle walks into a bar and engages in a conversation with a suggestively attired woman who is watching an arm-wresting contest and shows first an interest  (“I like you tonight”) in Tawny, the woman.

Seth: I got a hundred bucks says I can beat 
           either one of you.

    Marky: Take a hike, asshole!

     Seth: Here.  [He produces money.]  Here’s my 
           hundred.  And I get
to take the lady
           home for the night if I win.

    Tawny: Sez who?  Do I look like a hooker to you?

    Marky: Hey, Tawny.  It’s an easy hundred.

Seth wins the bet and walks away with Tawny whom he ravages in his apartment; when Tawny shows no interest in getting involved in his scientific experiment, he is ready to force her despite her objections.  Later his girlfriend Ronnie is the victim of his manhandling and she, unlike Tawny, is dragged kicking and screaming after being captured by him first; in an earlier scene, he physically evicted her from his apartment.

      The film shows the changes two men who are involved with the same woman go through in the course of the story.  It is not coincidental that they both have the same initials (SB).  One (Seth Brundle) is decent as the story begins and evolves into a son of a bitch later triggered by an act of jealousy when he mistakenly believes that Ronnie is having relations with her former boyfriend (Stathis Borans).  The other male Stathis begins as a son of a bitch (after Ronnie terminates relations with him) and evolves into a caring person by the end.  It seems men cannot deal with emotions in, or at the end of, a relationship: Since both Stathis and Seth were first involved with Ronnie professionally and then romantically and since both of them turn into monsters of sorts, it can be deduced that men do not handle breakups well.  The changes that occur to both men serve as a metaphor for the need for societal changes in male-female relations.

      In the final scene in the story, Seth asks Ronnie: “Help me.  Help me be human.”  The movement toward humanity is desired.  Seth finds it when he gets involved with Ronnie, but he loses it just as quickly.   In truth, both men in the story, and on a universal level, all men, need to be humanized.

Seth Brundle changes as a result of his interaction with Veronica even though their first meeting ended in near rejection.  At first he admits to not having a life (“I don’t have a life so there’s nothing for you to interfere with”); later he develops a relationship with Ronnie, and they hint at vacation plans.  He is reclusive and secretive about his work; his "farming out work" implies that in his environment people don't interact with each other.  Later he confides more in her and they are seen outdoors.  He dresses better when he buys clothes for him; his original wardrobe (which consisted of multiple pairs of the same clothes) showed a lack of imagination which characterizes his work.  His eating habits change from fast-food cheeseburgers to spicy Chinese.  He is inspired by Ronnie to solve the problem with transporting living creatures.  His work on objects is a metaphor for his lack of social skills.

 On the night that they talk (using words like “holiday”, “romance”, “old married couple”) about making plans to deepen their relationship without the encumbrance of work, everything begins to change when Seth uses himself as a guinea pig, and he begins to slowly evolve into a non-human form when a fly gets caught in the works.

      His personality changes from benign to brutal.  While he once suffered from motion sickness, he now can swing from a high bar and climb walls.   He becomes hyperactive and restless (the beginning of predatory behavior): “Let’s go!  Move!  Catch me if you can!”  He increases sugar intake.  While he once showed sensitivity to the death of a baboon, he shows insensitivity both to Ronnie by calling her a "fucking drag" and to the man in the bar whose wrist he broke in the arm-wrestling contest.  He begins incredibly stronger in the later example and when he easily carries Tawny up the many flights of stairs to get to his apartment.  Seth also begins a voracious sexual animal.

His physical transformation into a fly seems to be the heart of the story.  It is what makes the film repulsively memorable to viewers.  Seth loses his nails, ear, teeth, hair, and eventually his complete exterior.  As he notices the exterior changes, he wonders: “What’s happening to me?  Am I dying?  Is this how it starts when I’m dying?”  What this foreshadows is the death of his humanity.

      One scene serves as a litmus test for the viewer’s sensitivity to what is happening to Seth.  When Ronnie sees Seth looking like a cancer/AIDS patient, three events occurs: He spews acid on food, loses an ear, and is embraced by Ronnie.  The most violent emotional reaction from the audience occurs when Ronnie shows humanity to, what seems like, a terminally ill patient since it seems unlikely that Seth will ever improve.  The filmmaker asks: Which is the most emotionally upsetting scenes in which Seth physically connects with people, especially women?
      After Seth totally metamorphosizes into Brundlefly, he makes a speech to Ronnie which contains a germ of truth in the way men, at their worst, interact with women.

You have to leave now and never come back here. 
Have you ever
heard of insect politics? ....
Insects don’t have politics. 
They’re very brutal. 
No compassion.  No compromise ....
I’m saying
I’ll hurt you if you stay.

That brutality is shown in the final scene when Seth acts brutally with

Ronnie’s former lover Stathis Borans by spewing acid on his hand and ankle melting them and almost scorching his face.

In the course of the story, Stathis Borans evolves from unsympathetic to sympathetic.  Through Ronnie, we learn that his past history with her had immoral undertones: He was her college professor and “started” her in journalism.  This implies that he took advantage of her sexually.  And his interest in sex continues even after the relationship is over with forms of harassment.  He imposes himself upon her in her apartment by entering without being asked and showering: “I felt a bit scummy.”  He is scummy, but in a way that water will not eradicate. 

    Ronnie: How did you get in?

   Stathis: I have a key, remember?  You gave
                  it to me.

    Ronnie: I knew I should have changed the 

   Stathis: I knew you wouldn’t.

    Ronnie: Yeah?

   Stathis: Yeah ... That’s because unconsciously 
                  you still want me
to come back.  Move
                  in again.

    Ronnie: No.  That’s because very consciously
                  I’m very lazy and

Displaying jealousy, he refers to Seth as Ronnie’s “new playmate”.  When it seems unlikely that he will leave on his own volition, she poses a question.

Ronnie: Are you getting out or am I?

   Stathis: I’ll go.  I have to put this [magazine] 
            issue to bed. 
Do you want me to come 
            back later and tuck you in?

    Ronnie: No! ... Key!

   Stathis: I’ll keep it.  For old time’s sake.

Stathis stalks her.  When he finds her buying clothes for a man whom he intuits is Seth, he causes a scene in public with a sexual allusion.

Ronnie: I am finally onto something that’s big!  

   Stathis: Yeah.  What?  His cock?

    Ronnie: Crude, Stathis.  Very crude.

Even though he knows that Ronnie is involved in another relationship, he makes a proposition.

Stathis: What about sex?  I’m not saying love for
Just stress-relieving sex. 
            You and me.

    Ronnie: You’re disgusting.  As always.

   Stathis: Wouldn’t want to disappoint you.

When he discovers that Ronnie still cares about a man who is losing his humanity, his final sexual remark has a sense of humor:  “Do I have permission to clean your body when this is all over?”

Stathis’ lack of humanity is shown in other ways.  He doesn't care about people.  He only uses them.  In one scene, he jokes about an assistant editor who has “outlived his usefulness”.  He asks Ronnie to visit Seth so he can have a videotape of the session.  He wants, at first, Ronnie to have Seth’s baby because it may be deformed and make an interesting article in his magazine.

In the end, Stathis evolves into a human being.  Upon her insistence he does bring Ronnie to the hospital for an abortion even if it is in the middle of the night.  He does support her over the objections of a doctor.  Later he rushes to Ronnie's aid when her life is endangered.  For getting involved, his body loses a foot and hand, but he has reclaimed his soul by helping her.

Minor examples suggest that the film is about change.  Seth Brundle changes his name to Brundlefly.   Seth’s voice becomes unrecognizable by his computer.  As Stathis shows in Ronnie’s bathroom, there is a sudden change in water temperature after Ronnie flushes the toilet.  There is a change of mind by characters: Ronnie when she thinks that Seth is overstating the importance of his work when she first meets him and Stathis when he takes an interest in Brundle after ridiculing his project.

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