eXistenZ Review

by Edward Johnson-ott (PBBP24A AT prodigy DOT com)
April 20th, 1999

eXistenZ (1999)
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley, Christopher Eccleston. Music by Howard Shore. Cinematography by Peter Suschitzky. Written and directed by David Cronenberg. 97 minutes.
Rated R, 1.5 stars (out of five stars)

Review by Ed Johnson-Ott, NUVO Newsweekly
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"Videodrome" and "Dead Ringers" director David Cronenberg is really getting on my neRvZ. As a follow-up to "Crash," his 1996 endurance test about people who get sexually aroused by car wrecks, he offers "eXistenZ, " a grisly, uninspired tale about virtual reality run amok. Once again, Cronenberg operates on the assumption that if you fill the screen with enough creepy imagery, people will overlook leaden pacing, flat characters and a tired, obvious "question reality" storyline with a final "twist" so obvious that it's almost laughable.

The basic theme of "eXistenZ" was explored more effectively in 1995's "Strange Days," and with far less goo. Cronenberg throws so much blood and guts into this film that at times I felt like I was watching the Surgery Channel on a TV placed in a tank full of bait. I wish he would just take a job in a slaughterhouse and get this fetish out of his system once and for all.

Cronenberg also uses another of his favorite attention-getting devices, grisly sexual imagery. To play eXistenZ (pronounced EGGs-iz-TENZ), participants must have "bio ports" drilled into their lower backs to allow an organic cord to plug the "metaflesh game pod" directly into the spinal column. In addition to showing us the vaguely phallus-shaped cords being plugged into the "bio-ports," we're also treated to a shot of one character inserting a finger into a freshly drilled "port" hole and another of a character licking one of the openings. Golly (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), what could David possibly be alluding to with these images? One thing's for sure: I would never let this guy date my sister.
The gore-porn motif might be acceptable were it serving a novel story, but after an intriguing beginning, the film goes nowhere, and takes what feels like forever to get there. It starts at a test session for eXistenZ. Volunteers meet Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), inventor of the new virtual reality game, and prepare to try out her creation. Suddenly, an audience member leaps forward, shouting revolutionary slogans while trying to assassinate Allegra with a gun that looks as if it were assembled from Thanksgiving turkey leftovers. Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a company lackey and virtual reality virgin, rescues Allegra and the pair take flight. Unsure whom to trust, Allegra cuts off contact with everyone except Ted, enlisting his help to repair the prototype game pod that was damaged in the attack. With great misgivings, Ted agrees to be fitted with a "bio port" and the couple sets off on a virtual reality recovery mission.

Unfortunately, Cronenberg's virtual worlds are considerably less interesting than the real one. Allegra and Ted spend a great portion of the film encountering cryptic figures in a trout farm and a Chinese restaurant. Everyone chases each other around while brandishing organic guns that shoot teeth, Allegra rubs things a lot and bonds with a two- headed sort-of salamander and, when not fighting or making out, the couple wonders whether they've reached reality or just another level of the game. Trust me, this description reads more exciting that it plays out onscreen.

Although only 97 minutes long, "eXistenZ" plods terribly before stumbling to its trite conclusion. Along the way, a great cast is wasted. Wonderful actors like Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm and Sarah Polley are given throwaway parts and Jude Law is saddled with a terminally bland role. Remember the moment in "The Matrix" when Keanu Reeves says "Whoa?" Law's character basically stays at that level of emotional development for the entire movie. Only Jennifer Jason Leigh, as the shy adventurer, plays a fully- fleshed out human being. She's good, but not good enough to salvage this production.

"eXistenZ" has some redeeming qualities. The score is good and the opening scene features some nice moments. Satiric jabs at marketing and consumerism are scattered, too infrequently, throughout the story, and there is a dandy sequence where several game users critique their own virtual characters. But "eXistenZ" is smothered by lousy pacing and an awful "been-there, done-that" feeling. Cautionary tales about virtual reality have already been covered quite nicely, David Lynch handled weirdness more stylishly in any given episode of "Twin Peaks," and Cronenberg's gross-out visuals and freaky sexuality are old news. Hopefully, before making his next movie, Cronenberg will review "The Dead Zone" or "The Fly" and remember how well he can handle the horror genre. Or, better yet, maybe he'll take a walk on a sunny day and try to capture its essence on film. For the King of Ick, what an accomplishment that would be.

1999 Ed Johnson-Ott

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