eXistenZ Review

by "Shane Burridge" (sburridge AT hotmail DOT com)
August 7th, 1999

eXistenZ (1998) 97m

David Cronenberg's latest biotechnical carny show aims its sights squarely at Internet addicts and video-game junkies. While the idea of people so dissociated from reality that they spend all their 'quality time' within an artificial environment has rapidly become overworked, Cronenberg still manages to come up with something that looks new. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a designer of ultra-sophisiticated virtual reality games (virtual actuality??), worshiped by players everywhere as if she were Lana Croft incarnate. But you can't be this good at something and not expect to draw attention, so Leigh finds herself fleeing industrial assassins and 'reality activists' intent on sabotaging her latest multi-million dollar project. She and fellow fugitive Jude Law hardwire themselves into the alternate universe of this game - 'eXistenZ' - as part of a routine diagnostic. Soon they find more than they bargained for: they discover another new and sophisticated game within eXistenZ which, as players, they must once again plug themselves into, and....you get the picture. By this time, walls of reality have truly dissolved.

The opening of eXistenZ indicates a computer-game version of Cronenberg's VIDEODROME - as a director he is well-known for his provocative recurring themes (mutation, the bonding of flesh and technology, surgery, hospitals, bodies in revolt) and it initially appears that we're about to get a more considered reworking of his earlier films. It's the same, but different: firstly, the cyberspace setting is new territory for Cronenberg, but secondly (and more noticeably) his approach is considerably lighter. eXistenZ is the funniest thing he has ever put on screen - I would have never expected to see an audience having such an openly good time with a one of his films until now! Of course, the humor of eXistenZ is pretty skewed - those familiar with the director's work will realize that they're laughing at the same gooey, organic gross-outs that he used to unsettle everyone with in his other movies. One man buys a copy of a you-be-the-victim car accident game and we're instantly reminded of the director's previous CRASH, and the furore about the violent automobile games released in its wake. Even the cry "Death to enemies of reality" seems to be a lampoon of previous rantings about 'the new flesh' . And if the line "Trust no one!", delivered in all seriousness, isn't a poke at the X-FILES, I don't know what is. Even Leigh and Law try to loosen up and enjoy the game, even though Law figures there is something sick and wrong about it all (for this is Cronenberg country, after all, and cyberspace is not a spotless, computer-generated playing platform but a decayed, visceral fug).

And then of course there's all that sex, even though the characters never actually get down to having any. eXistenZ oozes sex continuously, with one hilarious metaphor after another thrown up on screen with abandon. Given Cronenberg's past history of equating sex with disease and death, this film must surely be seen as a kind of personal liberation.

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