eXistenZ Review

by "Steve Rhodes" (Steve DOT Rhodes AT InternetReviews DOT com)
April 15th, 1999

A film review by Steve Rhodes
Copyright 1999 Steve Rhodes
RATING (0 TO ****): ***

Writer and director David Cronenberg enjoys pushing the edge of the envelope. Some of his movies, like CRASH about people who stage auto accidents for sexual arousal, are stylish misses, and others, like EXISTENZ about a virtual reality game made solely of biological components, are mesmerizing.

The story opens with a focus group about to try the new game, "eXistenZ," from world renowned "game pod goddess" Allegra Geller. Allegra, who dresses in a short shirt and wears spike heals, is played with confidence and intelligence by Jennifer Jason Leigh from GEORGIA. The company introducing the game has the building under such tight control that metal detectors screen all entrants. This does not help Allegra, however, when she is wounded by a would-be assassin. He carries an organic gun that fires human teeth, which renders the metal detector useless. The rest of the movie has her and her $28 million dollar game pod on the run.

Along as her bodyguard in her flight is GATTACA's Jude Law as Ted Pikul. Ted, as Allegra is upset to discover, doesn't even carry a weapon since he's actually just a marketing intern at the company and not in security at all.

The techo future they live in looks a lot like 1950's tacky, complete with cheap motels and old gas stations run by grease monkeys. About the only changes are that people don't bother actually doing the physical things, like skiing, that they used to do before the advent of powerful virtual reality systems.

The story's success stems from the concept of the system itself and from the intricate world built around it. The game pod looks like some bodily organs covered with a rubbery outer substance. To connect to the game pod you must have a bioport. A bioport is "just" a hole in your spine in which you attach an umbilical cord-like device that runs to the game pod. Just like we have places in the mall to do ear piercing, they have licensed establishments to puncture your spine. (As you might guess, this being a Cronenberg film, one of the few sexual scenes will involve a tongue and a bioport.)

Allegra talks a very reluctant Ted into going into her game with her. Willem Dafoe, as an extra greasy grease monkey named Gas, is called upon to install a quick and dirty bioport on Ted. Ted doesn't like this idea at all. "I have this phobia about having my body penetrated surgically," he tells Allegra. "You know what I mean?" Actually, she doesn't, since living in a game world for her is more natural than existing in the real world.

If you're squeamish about gore and goo, EXISTENZ probably isn't the film for you. The pods, which contain nothing but biological parts, are frequently sliced open and operated on as blood flies everywhere. The movie becomes a crazy mixed up world like a "Twilight Zone" episode about a game show on the "Surgery Channel." There are wild jokes about how the characters in the game have underwritten roles and are played with bad accents by poorly cast actors. The film, with its steel-gray blue cinematography and its creepy music, never fails to hold your attention.

Poor Ted finds Allegra's game almost impenetrable, complaining that in the game "the rules are indecipherable and possibly non-existent." This is all true and is what makes the movie so fascinating to observe. "There is some weird reality effect happening here," Allegra says. "I'm not sure if I get it." And the story is such a mind trip that most of the audience will be equally and pleasantly confused as well.

"What are you doing," Allegra asks during the game when Ted crunches into some gross-looking food at a Chinese restaurant near the trout farm where they work. "I don't know," he says honestly. "I find this disgusting, but I can't help myself." My sentiments exactly. And could you please bring on the next course.

EXISTENZ runs a fast 1:37. It is rated R for violence, gore, profanity and sexuality and would be fine for teenagers.

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