Throwback Thursday: The Fly as Metaphor for Lots of Things

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

Welcome to December. Some of you may be counting down the shopping days until Christmas. Others just want to get to 2017, hoping it turns out better than have chunks of 2016. In any case, I want to point out that today is World AIDS Day.

The first ever global health day, it started in 1988 at the height of the AIDS epidemic. On a day designed to spread awareness and increase support for people living with the disease, I thought it would be appropriate to look at some films that address AIDS using metaphors. Examples include It Follows, The Thing, and Alien 3. Some even see Beauty and the Beast’s plot as a metaphor for AIDS. Film, like other art forms, is subjective. Today we’ll look at 1986’s The Fly.

The Fly Theatrical poster - Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

The Fly theatrical poster.

David Cronenberg says that when he wrote the screenplay and directed the film, he wasn’t specifically alluding to AIDS. In 1986, however, with the disease taking center stage in the news, many saw a connection. Here’s the plot: an off-kilter scientist, Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum (who does off-kilter wonderfully), invents a teleportation device. To impress Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), a reporter, he shows her his invention and convinces her to document its progress. In escalating experiments, he eventually teleports himself while accidentally getting his DNA infused with that of an errant fly. His body slowly starts to change and break down as he rushes to find a cure before he dies or goes mad.

Jeff Goldblum's grotesque transformations in The Fly.

Goldblum’s transformations.

What triggered viewers of the film was the way Cronenberg and his effects team showed the breakdown of Brundle’s body. From lesions on his skin to loose fingernails, the camera details up close the physical devastation. We also see Brundle trying to come to terms mentally with what is happening and doing everything in his power to postpone the inevitable.

Jeff Goldblum on camera in The Fly.

The film never answers the question of how Brundle got a hold of multiple baboons.

Cronenberg keeps Brundle as sympathetic as possible–not an easy feat when his fly cravings take over. It’s a credit to both Cronenberg and Goldblum that we want to see Brundle succeed no matter what he’s done. A few scenes actually got cut after test audiences found them too disturbing and lost empathy for Brundle. If you pick up the DVD or Blu-ray, you’ll be able to see one in which he teleports a baboon and a cat to see if he can integrate them and then pull them apart again. When the monkey-cat ends up in incredible pain, Brundle savagely puts them out of their misery. It’s over the top—even for a film in which Goldblum crawls on a ceiling and learns to eat like a fly—and it was justifiably removed to preserve Cronenberg’s vision.

Brundle with facial lesions in The Fly.

Brundle just looks itchy.

Goldblum and Davis anchor the film with their performances. We get to see Davis fall in love, decide to stand by her man, and then worry that doing so may be too much for her. She struggles convincingly about whether or not she should help put him out of his misery. No one wants to see a loved one in pain, and end-game decisions are not easy. In The Fly, we see both sides of illness. It’s very easy to insert our own experiences into what we see on screen.

Geena Davis is concerned in The Fly.

Davis is concerned.

The Fly is worth viewing. The special effects, the acting, and the directing are all top notch. Brundle’s experience is a powerful metaphor for disease and aging. If people see AIDS as a specific metaphor, that’s perfectly understandable.

While deaths from HIV/AIDS have gone down in recent years, more than 35 million people have died from complications of the disease since 1984.On this World AIDS Day, please take stock, and reach out to those who are going through a debilitating illness. Give thanks that we’ve come as we have in finding a cure for AIDS, but remember that there’s still a battle to be fought. For more information on World AIDS Day, click here. You can read about where we’ve been, where we are now, and donate to support funding for research.

On a purely personal note, go out and hug a loved one today: 2016 is almost over.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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