eXistenZ Review

by "Harvey S. Karten" (film_critic AT compuserve DOT com)
April 15th, 1999


Reviewed by Harvey Karten, Ph.D.
Dimension Films
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley, Christopher Eccleston

    While I was watching David Cronenberg's latest sci-fi- horror tale I got to thinking about a character in Georg Buchner's expressionistic drama "Woyzeck." The title person in that play is a stupid soldier trying to make sense out of life, a man who is exploited by his girl friend and his superior officers. One day, while he is cutting the hair of his commanding officer, the captain surprises Woyzeck by expressing envy of him. "You don't know what it's like to be in the shoes of an intelligent person," he complains. I have to think about ways to spend the long waking hours of my days. I'm frightfully bored." The captain's assumption, however questionable, is that folks of lesser intelligence are like, say, cats. They can spend time alone without reading, without watching TV, and they seem not to get weary of life. Most of us human beings, though--particularly those with jobs that do not greatly challenge us--have to dream up ways to occupy ourselves constructively in order to make time pass quickly. The great paradox of life is that the faster time goes by, the better use you are making of your existence. And the key to this nirvana is to become wholly involved in what you're doing.

    What do you do to become wholly involved? If you're lucky, you have exciting work that allows you to begin at 9, spend what seems like an hour on the job, and, poof: it's 5 o'clock. There are other means of becoming absorbed, immersed, engrossed. Reading. Theater. Inspiring relationships with other people, both physical and intellectual. Movies. Interactive computing. And now, with the approach of the millennium, newer and better amusements involving virtual reality. You hook up to a gadget and are plunged into a world of illusion not unlike your dreams. In the near future, you may plug the cord not into the wall but into yourself in order to become totally a part of this dreamworld. Like Alice in Wonderland you submerge deeper and deeper into a hole into a strange land. Do this enough and you will have increasing difficulty separating your real life from your illusions. This brings us to "eXistenZ," an illusory adventure that takes twelve of Cronenberg's characters away from their everyday routines and plunges them together into a kind of acid trip.

    In the plot, volunteers have agreed to become guinea pigs for a beta testing of a game called eXistenZ, created by Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh)--who is considered the world's foremost designer of games of virtual reality. We learn early on that Allegra, like so many compulsive computer nerds, is a shy person who likes to surrender her real self to her "game character," in which she can say and do whatever comes to mind. Two players are in every scene, Allegra and Ted Pikul (Jude Law), the latter a reluctant and equally shy fellow who acts as Allegra's security guard and is not at all eager to participate in eXistenZ. He fears the pain of having a hole drilled into his spine for the insertion of an umbilical cord to which a "pod" is attached and has doubts about abdicating control to his game character. During their adventures together in what becomes a Cronenbergian nightmare, Ted and Allegra are pursued by a group of terrorists whose goal is to destroy the makers of "satanic" games, and because of the presence of moles, they are unsure who their friends are and whom they should avoid. Is Gas (Willem Dafoe), a friend or foe? He seems the former, as he is able to repair a defective pod and hook up the two principals. What about Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm), a scientist who is experimenting with eerie-looking creatures, one of which resembles a beating heart on which he is operating?
    The most frightening scene occurs in a Chinese restaurant to which Allegra and Ted have repaired following a half day of work in a trout-processing plant. Allegra suspects that the waiter, a particularly friendly guy who recommends bass but who brings them the day's special, is a terrorist bent on destorying her games. When she orders Ted to shoot the server with a gun he puts together comically from the creatures that make up the dish, Ted hesitates before blowing the man away.

    The principal gimmick of the movie is that neither we nor the players know when they are in the game or when they have returned to reality. At one point Ted calls a time out, plunging Allegra and him from the restaurant to a bed in a ski lodge. Is the lodge part of the game or are they back in their real lives?

    The object of this allegorical fable is obviously enough to warn us partly about the dangers of technology in general but specifically about the hazards of spending too much time playing computer games. To get a life, Cronenberg only indirectly suggests, we should spend more time nurturing human relationships--not by e-mailing or instant- messengering cyberfriends but by getting in touch with them, flesh to flesh, and solving the Big Problem "what shall we do with all the time the time on our hands" by fostering friendships. Any attempt to give in to shyness and give ourselves over to the glitter of mechanical substitutes will further our neuroses and lead to the mayhem to which Ted and Allegra become privy.

    This is a worthy theme to tackle, and Cronenberg seizes the day with the style which has become his trademark from movies like "The Fly," "The Dead Zone," and especially "Videodrome"--sleazy sets, slimy creatures, Frankenstein- style machinery, Kafkaesque ambiance, and in this case a dazzlingly eerie soundtrack that does much to further suspense and anticipation. Though the movie is involving enough, what is unusual is that the opening one-third--the part that takes place apparently before the virtual reality game has begun--is more absorbing that the balance. If the great Canadian director has made the realistic segment the most arresting portion of the film, has he succeeded as in the past in portraying the intensity of mutated existence? Unfortunately, while "eXistenZ" is far superior to some of his relative failures like "Naked Lunch," we cannot put this movie in the same class as his model study of human frailty and decay, "The Fly," nor is Jude Law in any way as compelling a performer as the great Jeff Goldblum. But Jennifer Jason Leigh, who in the past loved to play the absolute cynic with curled lip and gutteral voice, has never looked and sounded sexier. Though early reviews warned us about shocking bodily flowerings, there is nothing in this film that is scarier than a plate of mildly mutated lobster and crabs nor is a hole drilled in the spine to which a cord is inserted a particularly hair-raising image.

    Let's hope in any case that Cronenberg does not succeed in having his warning taken too seriously by the audience. If he does, look for a precipitous fall-off of the weekly movie audience as people stop passing time gazing at the big screen and instead visit one another to cultivate their human relationships.

Rated R. Running Time: 97 minutes. (C) 1999
Harvey Karten

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