The most horrific aspect of David Cronenberg‘s version of The Fly is that it’s a pretty earnest relationship drama. Not because the hindered courtship of girl reporter Geena Davis by scientist-fly hybrid Jeff Goldblum is embarrassing, like so many love stories pasted onto genre movies. Quite the contrary: The tension between these two characters — their moments of happiness and the botched science experiment that comes between them — is exactly what makes the film so harrowing.
Oh, and maybe also the brilliantly grotesque makeup by Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis, who won an Oscar for their efforts. But The Fly is never dependent on this impressive craftwork. Cronenberg doesn’t skimp on his trademark gooeyness, but doles it out selectively. Creepiness finds other, relatively dry and goo-free places to emerge. A scene of Seth Brundle (Goldblum), after he unwittingly shares a teleportation trip with a common housefly, rising in the middle of the night and performing amazing gymnastic feats, becomes unnerving as the camera lingers on a long shot of his spinning, soaring body. Veronica Quaife (Davis) looks on, silent and still, unsure of what to do; tension rises in the scene because of the characters, not just because you don’t expect to see Jeff Goldblum doing flips on the parallel bars.
It’s too bad Goldblum and Davis, a real-life couple for several years, never got the chance to do a polished romantic comedy together (their other collaborations are less depressing but campier). His stuttering gawkiness is a good fit with her more assured lankiness; they deserve a happier ending.
Goldblum, whose later scientist characters would issue dire, sarcastic warnings to the likes of Seth Brundle, escalates his natural twitchiness to great effect here; first as a lonely eccentric using his scientific breakthrough to pick up chicks, and then as a sub-human who vomits up enzymes to liquefy his food. In a sense, as with many monster movies, you’re essentially waiting around for 40 or 50 minutes for the monster to show up, but spending this time with Goldblum and Davis is a pleasure.
So the basic storyline of The Fly fits snugly into the horror genre (it is a remake, after all), but its execution is surprisingly full of sadness and tragedy — and intimacy, too. It’s remarkable, really, when you look back at the movie and consider how much of it consists of just Goldblum and Davis. The third lead, John Getz, as Davis’s smarmy ex (and editor), is so extraneous that his lunge into climactic heroics is vaguely unexpected, even though it’s actually a monster-movie cliché. You get the feeling that Cronenberg, ever a fan of discomfort, doesn’t expect much from the character either.
As he would later show in A History of Violence, Cronenberg excels at telling a seemingly simple story with great intensity and human dimensions masked in genre elements. What The Fly does, it does unfussily, but astonishingly well.