eXistenZ Review

by Mark R Leeper (leeper AT hobcs3 DOT ho DOT lucent DOT com)
May 13th, 1999

    A film review by Mark R. Leeper

    Capsule: Reality comes in layers as a game
    world is the gateway to more game worlds within
    still more game worlds. David Cronenberg's new
    film is not for all tastes, but it is whimsical,
    witty, and weird. The Canadian director plays with themes of electronic games, mutation, religious
    fatwas, and some just plain weird stuff. This is a film that is kinky in many ways and some have
    nothing to do with sex. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high
    +2 (-4 to +4)

    While there is much in "eXistenZ" that harkens back to VIDEODROME, the film is new and fresh. It is a big night for Antenna Research, a leading virtual-reality game company. They are ready to start the last round of tests for their new reality-bending game eXistenZ. They do not want to say what makes eXistenZ so different, but it is a distinct step beyond other virtual reality games that also tap directly into the nervous system through jacks in the base of the spine. eXistenZ is something of a breakthrough. It is so new that the demo of eXistenZ will be done by the inventor of eXistenZ, the queen of game designers Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). But something is wrong. The competition has gotten an agent into the crowd and he nearly assassinates Geller with a strange handgun made of living matter. Ted Pikul (Jude Law), who is providing security, takes Allegra to safety at a local motel. But Allegra has to test her eXistenZ gamepod, containing the only complete version of the game. (It is worth in the tens of millions of dollars and she keeps the only copy in her pocket. Right.) That means she needs a playing partner. But Ted does not have the jack at the base of his spine and is less than anxious to get one. Luckily there is a local gas station attendant (deliciously played by Willem Defoe) who installs jacks as a sideline. And for Ted a strange new world is about to open.

    David Cronenberg makes some of the most bizarre films of any popular filmmaker. What is remarkable is that the more his films get strange the more he crosses over to a mainstream audience. It was not enough that he had the weird alien medical instruments that he had in DEAD RINGERS, here he takes things a step further and makes all the machinery of the games, the game pods and the connecting cables, out of organic material. One does not so much flip a switch as massage and caress it. Connections are not made by cables but by umbilical cords. Cronenberg comes dangerously close to alienating his viewer by disgusting him. But ingeniously he keeps the tone just light and freakily witty enough that the viewer happily goes along for the ride. But the wit is never so over the top to turn the "eXistenZ" into a farce. When I saw the film the audience seemed to be enjoying the film immensely. Cronenberg's problems are not with his audience but with his financial backers. Reportedly the major studios that could have financed "eXistenZ" found the plot to be "too non-linear." They were absolutely right that as the plot goes skin-diving through layers of reality things do get a bit complex, but that is much of the fun of the film. The non-linearity works for the film, not against it.

    Early in her career I found Jennifer Jason Leigh's roles to be an irritating combination of ingenue and counter-culture. She was sort of the Homecoming Queen with a gun from Julie Brown's song. But as her collection of offbeat characters increases I am beginning to appreciate what an accomplished character actress she has become. Here she gives a well-balanced performance that is generally perfect for the Cronenberg material. Jude Law of GATTACA and MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL plays the understandably bewildered protagonist pulled into the worlds of reality switching and being implanted with strange impulses. Along for the ride are Ian Holm with a thick accent. Also present is Don McKellar, the actor who seems to be as ubiquitous in Canadian film these days as Denholm Elliot was at one time in British film.

    "eXistenZ" is nearly as complex as the current THE MATRIX, but it has real characters and a plot involving three-dimensional people with motivations rather than with martial arts skills. For the right audience the film is a kick. I rate the film an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Mark R. Leeper
[email protected]
Copyright 1999 Mark R. Leeper

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