eXistenZ Review

by Ram Samudrala (ram AT csb DOT stanford DOT edu)
July 2nd, 1999

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eXistenZ
http://www.ram.org/ramblings/movies/existenz.html

/eXistenZ/ is the third of the movies released in 1999 that poses a scenario that makes us question the basis of our reality (the other two being /The Matrix/ and /The Thirteenth Floor/). /eXistenZ/ is more like /The Thirteenth Floor/ in that it is about virtual reality gamers creating a virtual reality game inside a virtual reality game (three hierarchies, as opposed to one in /The Matrix/ and two in /The Thirteenth Floor/).

The movie, set in a semi-dystopian future, starts of rather benignly. A virtual reality gaming system called eXistenZ ("capital X, capital Z") is being tested and the participants are all "jacked in" to the game using organic game pods that interface with bioports connected to their spinal cords. Leading the test run is one of the best game designers in the business, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). As she plays the game, a "realist", presumably someone who opposes what the virtual reality gaming culture stands for, attempts to assassinate her using a gun made purely out of organic material (to escape detection) that shoots human teeth. She is saved by Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a PR person for the gaming company that paid for eXistenZ and they both escape the assassination scene. But following another attempt o her life, Allegra realises she is marked for death.

In order to figure out who wants her dead, Allegra, along with Ted, venture into eXistenZ and play a game where clues about her attack slowly emerge. This occurs about half-way through the movie and from all appearances, this appears to the be the first time we're introduced to the virtual eXistenZ the players experience. But Writer and Director David Cronenberg has a twist in store for us.

The best part about /eXistenZ/ is the use of organic technology to interface with our nervous system. Further, the world portrayed by Cronenberg is fascinating: genetically engineered organisms are grown to satisfy special needs but yet we also have beautiful forests and trees. The cinematography is surreal and trippy.

Among the three "what is reality" films, /eXistenZ/ is the one that really shoves the question of what happens when the virtual world is indistinguishable from the real world?

I once played a VR game (I believe it was at a Dave and Buster's restaurant) where we put on helmets, gloves and shoes and our movements and actions (including firing weapons) would echoed by the computer character (to the onlookers, it must've appeared as though we were flailing wildly). Since the "virtual reality" was still cartoonish, it was readily distinguishable from the world we normally perceive.

But imagine a world where superb animation has replaced the cartoonish environment and our perceptions of objects and things wearing VR gear is virtually identical to our perceptions without the gear. And someone designs a game that when you "win", you don't really step out of the game but presents the appearance that you do. Or vice versa. What is to distinguish your reality from the virtual reality?
There is also some commentary about desensisation (to violence) in the film, but that is lost answering the question posed above. Unlike /The Matrix/ which lays out a lot of the philosophy for us, and /The Thirteenth Floor/ which doesn't do anything except blithely follow a thought-provoking plot, /eXistenZ/ is clearly about present ideas and concepts to us that we can explore and dissect. A definite must see.
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