eXistenZ Review

by "Nathaniel R. Atcheson" (nate AT pyramid DOT net)
June 3rd, 1999

eXistenZ (1999)

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley, Christopher Eccleston Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Producers: David Cronenberg, Andras Hamori, Robert Lantos Runtime: 97 min
US Distribution: Dimension Films
Rated R: strong violence, sexual imagery, and language

Copyright 1998 Nathaniel R. Atcheson

Making a movie out of a video game is a pretty bad idea. We've seen numerous critical and box office failures that began as depthless video games (how can a video game really have depth?) and resulted in depthless movies. Making a movie about a video game -- now that's a different story. As technology progresses, video games are getting more advanced and immersive, and the political and ethical questions concerning our urge to lose ourselves in virtual reality is in full swing.

Of course, David Cronenberg's new film, eXistenZ, is the fourth movie in the last two months (and the third in the last two days) to deal with an aspect of this theme. The other films -- The Thirteenth Floor, Open Your Eyes, and The Matrix -- range from bad to wonderful, but they all tackle the virtual reality craze from a slightly different angle. eXistenZ is the first to do it using video games as its theme, and one could easily make the argument that Cronenberg's movie is the most pointedly critical of the bunch. It's also the most blatantly strange, and the most sexually perverse. And while I disagree wholeheartedly with many of Cronenberg's claims, I found myself entranced and delighted with just about every scene of his movie.

eXistenZ is the name of a computer game created by Allegra Gellar, an abrasive character played by the fearless and mesmerizing Jennifer Jason Leigh (she forfeited her role in Eyes Wide Shut to make this film, which impresses me). During the trial run of eXistenZ, an assassin attempts to assassinate her, and she's taken off by Ted Pikul (Jude Law), her bodyguard-in-training. While on the run, they meet with several people who are anti-video games, and who attempt to kill Allegra and destroy her game. Fearing that her game is moribund (the pod which houses the game seems to have consciousness), she decides she needs to play eXistenZ with someone friendly -- namely Ted, who has no interest in doing so. Naturally, they enter the game, and things unpredictably progress from there.

eXistenZ is worthy of Cronenberg's name. Aesthetically, the movie is just plain strange. The extended metaphor between sex and the game is anything but subtle; the pod I mentioned earlier is organic and pulsates with orgasmic pleasure whenever it's used. Players jack in to the pod by using a phallic umbilical cord inserted into a suggestive bio-port in the spine (you must be fitted with a bio-port in order to play the games). And though I found the sexual imagery to be in fairly bad taste, I had no problem soaking it up with silent satisfaction. The movie looks just right, with bland colors and appropriately perfunctory sets. Howard Shore's musical score is superb, using deep stringed instruments the way they're meant to be used. And I love that the film is set in the vague future; it gives the story a degree of dreadful believability.

The film is artistically advanced, and Cronenberg does a splendid job of creating a world that really feels like a video game. I have more than passing knowledge of the history of video games (I was once a zombie at the mercy of my Nintendo), and so I was right at home in the world of eXistenZ. There are details in this game world that could have only been inserted by someone familiar with the way games work -- the arbitrary nature of the plots, the one-note characterizations, the way key figures in the story loop mindlessly when they're not being spoken to. When it focuses on these elements, the film is really quite funny. I love the scene in the Chinese restaurant, in which our heroes are forced to compose a bone gun out of mutated amphibian parts, shortly before shooting the Chinese waiter for plot-progressing reasons. The film also features an array of wonderful actors, including Leigh, Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Eccleston, and Sarah Polley.
eXistenZ is most compelling and also most frustrating on a thematic level. The basic idea is nothing particularly new -- we've all heard the argument that the closer we get to virtual reality, the further we get from true reality. Then there's the question, "What is reality, anyway?" Cronenberg isn't interested in these over-explored ideas. He just wants to show us what happens when people become incredibly obsessed with a life that isn't theirs. But I was mildly disappointed with the end of the film, for it creates more questions than it answers, and Cronenberg doesn't drop enough hints throughout the film for us to figure out what really happens. And I was annoyed with the insinuation that video games lead to mindless violence. A few months ago, when the media found time to drool over the massacre in Littleton, Colorado, I found myself enraged at the screenshots of Doom (a popular and violent video game) and the implication that playing games like this makes you shoot real people.

I digress. Even though the ending isn't quite satisfactory, Cronenberg's eXistenZ is an artistic success and an intelligently-constructed argument against virtual reality. As we approach the end of the millenium, we're going to be seeing a lot more movies like this one -- films that inspire paranoia and breed neurosis. But this whole "Is it real or not?" genre is starting to grow on me. Perhaps we'll be spared the displeasure of more films based on video games; instead, we'll be subjected to movies about video game programmers who can't tell if they're in the real world or the virtual world. If these movies turn out to be as fun and imaginative as eXistenZ, I won't have any problem buying in to them.

Psychosis Rating:  7/10


    Nathaniel R. Atcheson

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