eXistenZ Review

by Travis Hoover (onibaba AT compuserve DOT com)
May 9th, 1999

Written and Directed by David Cronenberg

(review by Travis Hoover- [email protected] /
Please visit my website, "Travis Hoover's Days of Thunder"- http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Bungalow/1408/ )

Existenz is yet another example of David Cronenberg divided against himself. His films tend to depict the actions of an altered human consciousness in which he would dearly like to participate, coupled with the price of that consciousness, which is normally paid for in blood. One thinks back to Naked Lunch, where for William Lee writing is equated with killing his wife over and over; Seth Brundle in The Fly, where his "improvements" ultimately result in his loss of humanity and death; and the participants in Crash who seem marked for death after being introduced to the sexual euphoria in dangerous driving. Cronenberg is forever torn between the transformation of humans into other beings, all the while planning on the moment when he can hit the ejector seat and leave his fated company to die or disperse into silence and solitude.

This time his dual citizenship in the country of his special little people is represented by a marketing man (Jude Law) who is torn from the very fabric of reality itself in the course of doing his job. Doing security at a test-marketing session for the new virtual reality game Existenz (hence the title), the little man finds himself defending the game's inventor, Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh) from a pack of terrorists called "realists" who wish to destroy the very idea of virtual reality. Fleeing from an attempted massacre by a realist with a flesh and blood gun- which shoots human teeth- he is thrust into the arms of the virtual reality program of which he is very wary. As he says in the film's forthrightly Freudian manner, "I don't like the idea of things penetrating..."

While the film remains centred on the travail of Leigh's character, the audience is stuck with the know-nothing Law as entry point to this strange new world of besieged falsehood and militant reality. Running with his widely-acknowledged debt to the interview he conducted with Salman Rushdie, we are presented with a fiction perceived as so dangerous that extremists will kill those who propagate it. This means that those on the side of the fiction must find a safe haven- no easy feat with a huge price on Leigh's head. The plot thickens when her "game pod"- a curvy, feminine device with two nipples and a central valley- is shorted out by an improperly-installed spinal jack on Law; the two must first find someone to repair the organically based game pod, and then jack into it in order to ensure the game's safety.
Giving away any more of the plot of this multi-layered extravaganza wouldn't be cricket. But rest assured that there are gender issues to be dealt with here, as there always are in Cronenberg. As stated earlier, Law's character hasn't been fitted for a spinal jack because fears the act of "penetration" to be performed on him, thus confirming a certain amount of feminization of the part of the VR user. Cronenberg's oeuvre has long been concerned with the feminization of participants in technology, from the giant metallic telepod-as-womb in The Fly to the hallucinated vagina on James Woods in Videodrome to the long scars that the car-sex enthusiasts in Crash fetishize. In an article by an author whose name escapes me now, Cronenberg was accused of envying the female capacity for reproduction, and thus explored the possibility of feminization through penetration (The critters in Shivers, for example) or the construction of wombs (gynecology in Dead Ringers, the telepods in The Fly, Woods' vagina-like opening in Videodrome). Cronenberg is obsessed with creating special people who can transcend gender through artificial means, making the gender divide almost invisible.

But what is also recurrent is Cronenberg's waffling over the significance of his special people. On the one hand, he seems fascinated by their increased powers and sheer difference- the fact that they are other, enhanced beings than mere humans; on the other hand, this difference gets to be dangerous. While he would seem to be on the side of the pro-game contingent here, his camera style and second-person entry point through law would seem to indicate a sense of disconnection from his own creations, as if he had opened Pandora's box and then denied the whole thing. The fascination we have with the characters is filtered through Cronenberg's fascination and repulsion, resulting in an arms-length aesthetic practice in which the characters and situations are observed rather than identified with. This isn't some Brechtian agenda of Cronenberg's- it's emotional cold feet, a bizarre act of disavowal which ends up trivializing the films' explosive subject matter into a series of theorems to be examined but never engaged with. This unwillingness to go the other way is best summed up by Videodrome's New Flesh convert blowing his brains out, but never suggesting the utopian vision on the other side that the film has been hinting at.

The intellectual double-standard is here coupled with an aesthetic aridity that is all too familiar to those who have followed Cronenberg's career. What calls for an extravaganza of sensory overload in the world of the VR simulation is visually lacking, full of unused spaces and God's-eye camera angles. While you are invited to watch through the surrogate of Law, watching is all that you'll do; your participation is limited to being directed by Leigh and watching in horror at the consequences of a variety of pre-chosen actions dicatated by the Existenz game. Ultimately there's not much freedom in Cronenberg's world. There is a definite feeling of futility of any of the actions of the characters in the film, as dependant as they are on other people (beings?) pulling the strings on the shifting landscapes of the mind. The results, while nominally engrossing, are ultimately unfeeling and hollow at heart.

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