Recently I watched “The Fly” (the 1986 version) for the first time. I have had this film on my shelf for almost two years now; my reason for avoiding it was that I am obsessed with Jeff Goldblum and I was afraid that seeing him all gross and decomposing would make me love him less. I know how ridiculous that sounds.
The thing about being completely in love with Jeff Goldblum is that, unlike many other stars to whom I am attracted, he tends to, in general, make pretty good movies. I think this must be difficult as an unconventionally attractive person, particularly one with a very distinctive cadence, so it is all the more admirable that the Goldblum ouevre has very few misses. So I was fairly confident that “The Fly” would be good.
For those who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it – but I also recommend staying away from this post until you have seen it; I know it’s ridiculous to post spoiler warnings for a 25-year-old film, but I do plan to discuss a plot point that I did not know about before watching and I just want to make sure you’re prepared. Also I find it tiresome to do plot summaries so if you haven’t seen it and want to keep reading, better start googling.
“The Fly” has been understood in some circles as a cinematic metaphor for AIDS, although David Cronenburg was reportedly surprised by this interpretation as he had intended the film to be about disease, aging and death in general. In the cultural context of the 1980s, though, even an unintentional reference to AIDS makes a lot of sense and the interpretation has stuck – even I thought that was what it was about, going in. What I didn’t know was that this film deals unflinchingly with the abortion issue and more generally with bodily autonomy.
What I loved about the abortion theme was that there was no hemming and hawing over the politics of it; it was simply a choice that Veronica needed to make, and once she made it even the slimeball ex-boyfriend was fully ready to help her out. If this film was made today I am certain that either the pregnancy storyline would have been cut altogether, or there would have had to have been some obligatory consideration of the “pro-life” viewpoint before she could ultimately go ahead with it. How dreary it is that we have regressed so much.
There are moments in the film that were so real, I felt as if Cronenburg (and Geena Davis) must have spent some time hanging out in the counselling offices of abortion clinics. When Veronica sees Seth in the last stages of deterioration and decides she needs to go ahead with the abortion immediately, Stathis reminds her that it is the middle of the night. “I need it out of me! Now!” she screams. What clinic staffer hasn’t seen that level of desperation before? I know this is Goldblum’s star-making role but I think Davis was note-perfect. Her whole story is a woman who falls in love with someone who changes, and becomes something different than she thought – whether from disease, or obsession – and when she finds herself pregnant, she has to decide how much of that man she wants in her life through the potential child. Also it might end up being a giant maggot. We’ve all been there. And Seth’s fear that the child might be all that is left of the pre-disease him…I have a friend whose partner died, and at the funeral his mother said to her (my friend) that she had hoped she might be pregnant, that her son might have left her with a part of him to carry on. This is a real thing in the world.
I was thrilled to find this plot in “The Fly” – it’s not unlike going back to rewatch “Dirty Dancing” and finding the abortion part, that I didn’t understand as a child, is actually amazing and realistic and integral to the story and themes. It’s not so much about films showing abortion as it is about them portraying it realistically. Everything about “The Fly” is a total mind fuck (this is Cronenburg after all), so finding this ridiculously straightforward, unquestioned abortion plot is such an unexpected gem.
Of course, after Veronica decides to have the abortion, Seth kidnaps her from the operating table and brings her back to the lab, where he wants to fuse himself to her and the baby, creating “the perfect family”. Holy social commentary, batman! At this point I may have been reading too much into it but I really think there is a lot going on here regarding not just Veronica’s immediate physical safety and that aspect of bodily autonomy, but also the idea of the nuclear family and gross antichoice dudes who won’t “let” their girlfriends have abortions. And the idea of marriage as a solution for unintended pregnancies. It’s 1986. There is a lot going on, friends.
Obviously there are a lot of themes interwoven throughout “The Fly” and it is not just a straight up horror movie, but I think bodily autonomy is one of the main ones and it manages to deal with a lot of complex issues around that, possible because it buries them in horror. It’s like Frankenstein! Or more contemporarily, it reminded me a lot of “District 9” (upon which it was clearly a huge influence). But it really can be viewed as a complex narrative of the abortion decision: the feeling of violation, the uncertainty about who the baby might be if it is born, the complicated emotions of the men involved, the urgency – it was all there.
Nothing delights me more than when I consume some pop culture that is unexpectedly feminist. And best of all, the makeup effects were so good I could barely even tell it was Jeff Goldblum under there, so my undying love emerges undamaged. Good movie night.