eXistenZ Review

by "Richard Scheib" (roogulator AT hotmail DOT com)
May 20th, 1999


Canada/UK. 1999. Director/Screenplay - David Cronenberg, Producers - Cronenberg, Andras Hamori & Robert Lantos, Photography - Peter Suschitsky, Music - Howard Shore, Visual Effects/Special Effects Supervisor - Jim Isaac, Digital Effects - Toybox (Supervisor - Dennis Benardi), Makeup Effects - Steven Dupuis, Creature Effects - Kelly Lepowsky, Production Design - Carol Spier. Production Company - Alliance Atlantis/Serendipity Point Films/Natural Nylon.
Jennifer Jason Leigh (Allegra Geller), Jude Law (Ted Pikul), Willem Dafoe (Gas), Ian Holm (Kari Vinokur), Don McKellar (Yevgeny Nourish), Robert A. Silverman (D=Arcy Nader), Callum Keith Rennie (Hugo Carlaw), Sarah Polley (Merle)

Plot: An assassination attempt is made on celebrity virtual reality games designer Allegra Geller as she premieres her new VR game eXistenZ in a church. She flees, accompanied by her appointed security aide, Antenna Research corporate intern Ted Pikul. Attempting to introduce the VR neophyte Ted to her work, she has him implanted with one of the spinal bio-ports into which the organic consoles plug. But once inside eXistenZ, they are drawn into a disturbing game between two rival factions that are seeking to gain control of the game where they are no longer sure what is real and what is illusion.

If 1998's big theme was asteroid collision and tv-turned-reality movies and 1997's was volcano disaster movies and 1996's was big budget alien invasion films, then this year's trend is shaping up to be Virtual Reality movies - what with ‘The Matrix', ‘eXistenZ' and the upcoming ‘The Thirteenth Floor'.
‘eXistenZ' is the second of the year's VR movies. Although jumping on the Virtual Reality trend, or any type of bandwagon, is never exactly something you could accuse Canadian director David Cronenberg of doing. Cronenberg is probably one of the most unique and original voices in the sf/horror genre. His body of work - which ranges from ‘Stereo' (1969), ‘Crimes of the Future' (1970), ‘Shivers' aka ‘They Came from Within/The Parasite Murders' (1974), ‘Rabid' (1976), ‘The Brood' (1979), ‘Fast Company' (1979), ‘Scanners' (1981), ‘Videodrome' (1983), ‘The Dead Zone' (1983), ‘The Fly' (1986), ‘Dead Ringers' (1988), ‘Naked Lunch' (1991), ‘M. Butterfly' (1993) and ‘Crash' (1996) (with all bar ‘Fast Company' and ‘M. Butterfly' being sf-horror works) - is something that rings with a voice of startling originality. Throughout Cronenberg's work runs a fascination with bodily horrors - he could be accused of being the first Manichean horror film-maker. Cronenberg regularly crafts striking metaphoric images - be it a woman's body being taken over by a vampiric organ under her armpit in ‘Rabid'; psychological repressions manifesting themselves in flesh form in ‘The Brood' or the scientist slowly melding into a fly in ‘The Fly'. But, unlike any classic horror film, the process of mutation, indeed the mad scientists themselves, in Cronenberg's oeuvre, are rarely processes of horror in any established sense - they are ones that seem to be welcomed as transformational experiences by the victims. In ‘The Fly', for example, the protagonist welcomes his transformation with an eager scientific fascination; in ‘Videodrome' and ‘Crash' we see people integrating with tv's and cars in ways that offer perverse new combinations of humanity and technology.
‘eXistenZ' is Cronenberg's most overtly commercial film in more than a decade. From ‘Dead Ringers' onward Cronenberg has determinedly pushed boundaries in terms of sheer perversity while having left behind any easy pigeonholing as a genre director. His adaptations of ‘Naked Lunch', William S. Burroughs' surreal and plotless ramble through drugs and homosexuality, and ‘Crash', J.G. Ballard's work of ‘auto'-eroticism, have been controversial to the say the least, being dogged by jittery financiers and distributors, while his mainstream adaptation of ‘M. Butterfly' was a commercial flop. During this time Cronenberg's career was on such shaky financial ground he was been forced to make ends meet by working as an actor in films like ‘Nightbreed' (1990), ‘To Die For' (1995), ‘Extreme Measures' (1996) and ‘Last Night' (1998).

Amid the dross that is being churned out on in the name of Virtual Reality cinema, one looks with interest to see what Cronenberg's peculiarly carnal fascinations would bring to the subject. His fascination with bio-technology immediately starts to creep in. Instead of keyboards people manipulate consoles that look like sheep's bladders which are attached via an intestine-like cable to a puckered orifice in the spinal column. Naturally being Cronenberg, the spinal bio-port orifice is played up for maximum sexual imagery with people seen tonguing and fingering it. Meanwhile assassains wield guns that are made out of human bone and tissue, in order to get past metal detectors, and which fire teeth. The start of the film with the assassination attempt, the flight and the encounter with Willem Dafoe (in an amusing cameo that in any lesser budgeted film should be mandatorily played by Brad Dourif) is engrossing. It is all aided by a marvellously brooding and oppressive score from regular Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore.

The first entry into VR doesn't come until nearly 30 minutes into the film and is well led up to. But thereafter the film sorts of falls apart. In fact for the high standards that one expected of Cronenberg, the script falls into some of the more disappointingly hackneyed cliches that has dogged the VR film. Like engaging in the series of perpetual flips where people are wondering if the game is over yet and what is assumed to be reality is intruded in upon - ‘Total Recall' (1990) (a disappointing treatment of the VR theme which incidentally was originally to have been made by Cronenberg) did these types of flips with far greater dexterity than Cronenberg does here. There's a labyrinthine (and never entirely clear) plot (reminiscent of the 1993 tv mini-series ‘Wild Palms') involving two different factions trying to, for reasons obscure, gain control of the VR game. As one of the character's eventually says "There are too many twists going on to follow." Indeed the rules of the VR game ‘eXistenZ' are never spelt out. Nor does what happen ever seem particularly game-like - Cronenberg seems to have taken a leaf from the book of David Lynch in having people standing about muttering surreal non-sequitirs in arch deadpan. The VR sequences are not without their amusements - like when the two leads find themselves controlled by character development and being forced into a gratuitous love scene. But when the film ends on what has rapidly become the VR equivalent of the old "It was all a dream" twist ending, one wants to yell at Cronenberg at the corniness of the device.

‘eXistenZ' feels like Cronenberg's least personal and most routine film since his adaptation of Stephen King's ‘The Dead Zone'. It feels less like a Cronenberg film than like a film in which a by-the-numbers VR plot has had a handful of Cronenbergian imagery grafted onto it. And when one looks for the characteristically perverse Cronenbergian flourishes, the imagery seems conspicuously lacking in any of the vividity of scenes in past Cronenberg films - like Samantha Eggar's brood of external foetuses in ‘The Brood'; the wonderfully queasy image in ‘Videodrome' of James Woods tentatively poking a gun inside the hole in his stomach then losing it; or in ‘Crash' of James Spader having sex wherein he treats the wound in Rosanna Arquette's leg as a substitute vagina. Even the most vivid image of the organic gun here seems to be one that Cronenberg has cannibalized from the image of the literal ‘hand-gun' fusion in ‘Videodrome'.

Reviewed by Richard Scheib

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