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eXistenZ

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 23 April 1999

  Written and Directed by David Cronenberg

While other science fiction filmmakers flirt with cyber-punk and the way the hardware and software of technology change the physical landscape and the social order, Cronenberg has been the one man soft machine exploring the effect on the human body: fleshware, if you will, the mutation of the human species as the direct or indirect result of the technological revolution. It’s only fitting that his perspective on virtual reality is at least as concerned with the physical effects as the mental.

For a man whose muse has consistently led him down a solitary path, it’s ironic to see eXistenZ emerge in a small pack of film loosely tied in subject matter, though Cronenberg’s tale is in a very different universe from the video game kinetics of The Matrix. Where that gave us heroes in the form of buff, bald Obi Wan Larry Fishburne and hunky web-surfer dude Keanu Reeves as cyber-warriors in a landscape of glass and steel, Cronenberg offers frumpy, self conscious Jennifer Jason Leigh as "game pod goddess" Allegra Geller, a normally reclusive designer, and lowly company flack turned security guard for the night Ted Pikul (Jude Law). (You can tell Cronenberg is back to writing his own films just by the great names!) Allegra is making a rare public appearance in a carefully controlled situation (a select group of rabid gamers in a rural church) to test her newest work in progress, a game that draws from psyches of its players to create a complex virtual world where a role playing game unfolds. Deep into a trancelike state and at her most vulnerable, an assassin shoots Allegra with a deliciously Cronenberg construct (I won’t spoil the surprise except it uses organic materials to slip past weapon detectors -- right down bullets with a real bite) and Ted leaps up to rush her out the door and into the night.

Allegra has become the target in a "fatwa" that may be the work of a rival corporation out to cripple the competition, or a faceless underground group of anti-gaming guerrillas out to make the world safe for reality. Yet all she’s concerned with is finding a safe place to play her game. She says it’s merely to make sure pod survived the attack since the only copy of this potentially multi-million dollar game is housed in her cooing little bio-pod (an organic piece of technology that’s as much flesh as machine), but it becomes clear that game reality is more interesting to her than life, no matter how pressing any network of assassins might seem. Ted, a gaming virgin, reluctantly becomes her partner, but only after he gets his own bio-port implanted -- and for that they find your friendly neighborhood black market plug-in artist, a slow talking gas station proprietor named, what else, Gas (Willem Dafoe). From about this point on Allegra and Ted find themselves fugitives in a sprawling conspiracy (there’s a $5 million bounty on her head), yet continue to plug into the game as if it provides some clues to their predicament. And perhaps it does: elements from "real life" (such as her mentor, a cranky bio-designer played by Ian Holm who hides her away in his ski lodge) intrude on their game, and characters from the game (namely a collection of curious figures played by Canadian actors Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie and Sarah Polley, who may or may not be on their side) seem to cross into the real world. The whole issue between what’s real and what’s "only a game" melts in a series of coincidences and cross-reality connections. "He’s only a game character," Allegra remarks after killing someone. "What if he’s real?" counters Ted. And how would we the audience know?

Cronenberg’s first original screenplay since Videodrome puts us back into his special brand of science fiction: the sexualization of all sensory experience, bio-technology that fuses flesh with mechanics in a creation as much evolutionary mutation as science, murky conspiracies, disease, mutation, and the shifting dimensions of realities. eXistenZ is a virtual reality game so realistic is threatens to become real, or as Cronenberg himself describes it: "It’s the game made flesh." The game pods are fleshy biomechanical creations with more than a passing resemblance to a human breast (you start the game by tweaking the nipple) and jacked directly an artificially created (and quite suggestive) orifice at the base of the spine through an umbilical cord-like cable. Don’t think that the sexual imagery ends there: after Ted gets his gaming cherry popped Allegra licks her finger and sticks it into newly installed bio-port. He sticks his tongue in hers. Suddenly going all the way has taken you into very different territory: Cronenberg has transformed the auto-eroticism of Crash for virtual sex.

Cronenberg’s reputation for so long was based not simply in crossing taboo lines, but in creating disturbing visceral metaphors in mutated flesh and the rebellion of the human body as some sort of revolutionary mutation. Since Dead Ringers he’s changed his cinematic attack somewhat, pushing the taboo transgressions into less obvious and more insidious territory and leaving the most disturbing elements to the imagination. eXistenZ is a return to form, somewhat, as it mixes the latter with the former. We still get the gross out scenes (check out Ted’s Chinese smorgasbord of mutant seafood) and techno-weirdness (the futuristic trout farm turned genetic laboratory), but with a cool, detached, dispassionate cinematic eye. In fact, it’s a bit too detached. Like Videodrome, eXistenZ explores the disconnection from reality, but where we were plugged into James Woods’ subjective experience in a visceral way, Cronenberg here makes us observers rather than players in this game. The detachment helps us navigate through the big picture, fish out the clues dropped through the layering of realities, and gives us a stance that makes good narrative sense by the conclusion. But we lose any connection with the characters: it’s hard to get involved -- and when the film is so much a role playing cyber-game come to life you need that involvement. Otherwise the film is about sifting through the code, deciphering the symbolic landscape, and putting together the narrative puzzle. Which is a fine exercise of a film, but hardly a riveting piece of cinematic art.

eXistenZ is brilliantly crafted -- every element fuses into a self referential whole that needs to be re-examined by the irony-laden conclusion -- but for a film that tackles the disconnection from reality it becomes so disconnected that there finally is no baseline. Reality is so much a matter of perspective that it ultimately may have no place in eXistenZ. Cronenberg has removed himself from the creepy onscreen doings so much that we’re just a little too comfortable. Where’s the discomfort we’ve come to know, dread, and love?


Be sure to read the interview with David Cronenberg.


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