eXistenZ Review

by Scott Renshaw (renshaw AT inconnect DOT com)
May 9th, 1999

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe. Screenplay: David Cronenberg.
Producers: Robert Lantos, Andras Hamori and David Cronenberg. Director: David Cronenberg.
MPAA Rating: R (violence, adult themes, profanity)
Running Time: 97 minutes.
Reviewed by Scott Renshaw.

    David Cronenberg's eXistenZ may be as thematically dense a film as we'll see all year. It touches on the nature of reality, and the ways we seek to escape it and embrace it at the same time. It addresses issues of violence in the media, as well as the nature of constructing a work of fiction. It's a cautionary tale, and a caution against excessive caution. It's a social satire, and even a self-satire. It's also, ultimately, a sinkhole for narrative and characterization. Cronenberg has created an emotionally weightless intellectual exercise that's fun to parse but little fun to watch.

    eXistenZ begins with what amounts to a preview screening for a new cutting edge virtual reality game called eXistenZ, designed by reclusive gaming genius Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Before she can begin the first demonstration, however, Allegra is the target of an assassination attempt by a radical anti-virtual reality terrorist. Accompanied by Ted Pikul (Jude Law), the game company's marketing intern, as her impromptu bodyguard, Allegra heads into the countryside to see if her eXistenZ prototype game module -- damaged in the assassination attempt -- can be saved. The only way to test that, of course, is to play the game, leading Allegra and Ted to discover a world almost too similar to the "real world" to tell the difference.

    If you know your Cronenberg (VIDEODROME, THE FLY, CRASH) at all, you know that you're entering a decidedly freaky realm. The world of eXistenZ includes pseudo-organic game pods that plug into the users' spines through a "bio-port" and a big umbilical cord; it features a pistol made of flesh and bone that fires human teeth (all the better to escape detection). Those who got off on the head-trippy kinkiness of CRASH will find themselves quite comfortable with a film in which characters get frisky with the holes in each other's backs, and where a meal in a Chinese restaurant consists of mutant amphibians sucked right off the skeleton.
    Those same viewers may also find themselves wrapped up in deconstructing Cronenberg's various messages. The design of the game pods -- which none-too-subtly resemble a compilation of erogenous zones -- turns into a poke at the masturbatory nature of video games, while Allegra's writhing response to "plugging in" adds drug addiction to the metaphorical layering. The story treats us to characters who commit violence in the real world while thinking they're still in a game world -- a creepy, timely commentary on the influence of pop culture violence -- then takes a swipe at the actions of the neo-Luddite anti-game faction. Perhaps most amusingly, eXistenZ plays with how characters behave in a fictional world, extending by implication to the plot-advancing conventions in film itself. There's enough sub-text in eXistenZ to keep a viewer well-occupied for its 97 minutes.

    If only Cronenberg had bothered to bring along any actual text to flesh out that subtext. eXistenZ plays out like a scholarly analysis of itself, a cinematic Cliff's Notes for a novel that doesn't actually exist. Leigh and Law are as purely functional in their roles as their characters are in their game-roles, and while Cronenberg may find that little meta-joke amusing, for a viewer it's merely distracting. By the time the plot of eXistenZ starts folding in on itself (leading to a revelation that's not at all revelatory if you've been paying attention), you may find yourself wondering why you should care about any of it. Cronenberg is as stylistically distinctive a film-maker as we have in this cookie-cutter era, but he's locked himself into a rut of message-filled visions with no human connection. eXistenZ plays out like a hallucinatory letter to the editor.

    On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 eXistenZial angsts: 5.

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