eXistenZ Review

by p-m agapow (pm AT postviews DOT freeuk DOT com)
June 3rd, 1999

[film] "eXistenZ"
A Postview, copyright 1999 P-M Agapow

It is the near future. Allegra Gellar (Lewis) is the world's greatest designer of virtual reality games. During a playtest of her masterpiece "eXistenZ", a botched assassination takes place. Unable to trust anyone, she flees with a makeshift bodyguard Ted Pikul (Law). Attempting to retrieve the only copy of her damaged game, Allegra and Pikul enter the scenario as the divisions between game and reality blur.

In order not to spoil the film, this review must by necessity be brief and somewhat elliptical.

"eXistenZ" (pronounced ex-is-TENZ, as in existential) divides me like few films have before. On one hand there are some nice twists and turns in it. On the other the blurring of dream and reality (be it actual dreams, virtual reality or hallucinations) has been done similarly many times before. (To name but a few examples: "The Game", "Brazil", "The Stuntman", "Naked Lunch".) On one hand, "eXistenZ" is sometimes very funny and lively. On the other it contains some horrible acting and implausible plot. It's a movie I enjoy more in retrospect than in actually seeing it.

It is the first half-hour of this film that will probably make or break the viewer's opinion. The actors drag themselves lumpishly through the preliminaries to establish the plot. Lewis, taking a break from playing nyphomaniac imbeciles, mumbles an explaination of why her game is so good. Law sports a North American accent so phony and an expression so wooden that he seems to have wandered in from the set of "Night of the Living Dead". Soon they are on the run and Law is whining, "I Want To Know What is Going On", capital letters and all. But then he confesses, "I have a fear of having my body penetrated surgically". And only in a Cronenberg film would you find anyone with a phobia so specific. Probably because he watched "Dead Ringers", poor fellow. But then Willem Dafoe shows up, playing a man (uh) a man with bad teeth, who gives the Law the surgical penetration he's been looking for.

Then we are introduced to the actual game and about now things start to get interesting. Players "plug in" by inserting fleshy cables into "bioports", cavities in their spine. Naturally, sticking the jack into your bioport is a metaphor for sex. But this is a Cronenberg film and everything is a metaphor for sex. Except for sex itself, which is a metaphor for death.

The game play will give any veteran roleplayer or text adventure addict a few laughs. Our protagonists are lead by the nose through a ridiculous plot, forced into certain actions, and at one point struggle to extract information from a dopey non-player character. (This evoked strong memories of typing, "examine item, get item, pickup item, retrieve item, grab item," to get the reply, "You can't do that.")

The plot of the movie itself is mysterious and defies any consistent explanation. There is a viewpoint that allows one to explain away the hideous acting and loo pholes as intentional artifacts of the director. But the acting is still poor and the plot still nonsensical. But if you can get by that (and it's a big if), "eXistenZ" will provide a few amusing gags and twists and probably leave a grin on your face. [***/good] and a good party you don't remember most of on the Sid and Nancy scale.

Released 1999.
Directed by David Cronenberg.
Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Willen Dafoe, Ian Holm, Don McKellar.

Paul-Michael Agapow ([email protected]), Biology, Imperial College "We were too young, we lived too fast and had too much technology ..."

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