eXistenZ Review

by "Stephen Graham Jones" (stephen AT cinemuck DOT com)
December 3rd, 1999

eXistenZ: deep in the video arena

First there was Tron, the movie and the videogame. Next came The Last Starfighter, where life was a videogame, more or less. Soon enough cyberpunk reigned and Johnny Mnemonic was born into the neuroscape of virtual reality; not long after, virtual reality gave birth itself, and Russell Crowe got to play the 'perfect' killer in the aptly-named Virtuosity. But of course people have been slipping between dimensions and realities and timeframes and worlds since Rod Serling. However, nine times out of ten it's just a gimmick, and any of that good old Twilight Zone paranoia ('is this really real?') is scuttled in favor of effects. But now David Cronenberg is taking a graphic stab at the whole thing, and he brings nothing to the table if not a fundamental--and contagious--distrust of reality.

His eXistenZ is set either in some alternate world or the near future. For purposes of the movie, it doesn't really matter. Suffice it to say that it's a reality where a two-headed frog / salamander / lizard is a 'sign of the times.' Too, everyone walks around with 'bioports,' little jacks in the lower spine which get umbilically attached to gamepods, which are themselves made of metaflesh and seem to have gender. And everyone's addicted to the games these gamepods allow, to the point that society has become factionalized over them, has split into the 'realists' and the 'antirealists.' The realists like to space out and play games; the antirealists don't. eXistenZ is the story of their ongoing skirmish.

But of course, too, it's more: these 'games' you can jack into aren't just Pac-Man or Galaga with fancy joysticks, but are indistinguishable from real life. As one of the characters says, "You have to play to figure out why you're playing," or even if you're playing. Add to that the fact that, within the game, you can jack into another game--thus going deeper and deeper--and pretty soon you wonder if where you started in the first place was really real or not. This is what world-famed game-designer / artist Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her impromptu bodyguard Ted (Jude Law) have to deal with, claw their way out of, etc.

It all starts when someone sneaks a 'bio' gun into a video-game marketing seminar and shoots Allegra with a human tooth. Sounds crazy yes, but then you should see the gun (as this is Cronenberg, too, there's no shortage of pistols pulled from strange places). So, on the run now, Allegra and Ted, naturally, jack into the game--ostensibly to check it out, but really just to give all the bad guys a chance to run them ragged in virtual reality. It's pretty cool for awhile, and, to Cronenberg's credit as a writer, everytime it begins to flatten out he ups the (regression-)ante just a little more, either by having causality cross the reality-boundary (per Lost Highway, which has a very similar, impenetrable logic) or having identities shift, per Total Recall (or, more specifically, another Philip K. Dick work--Maze of Death, which eXistenZ pretty much is). Or, talking 'straight' movies, Fincher's The Game, another case where the main character's never quite sure what's real. In The Game, however, Fincher eventually makes the world safe again, by putting a stop to all the regression, reestablishing a consensual baseline. Not so with eXistenZ. This is Cronenberg, after all. Just because it only takes 97 minutes to wrap things up, don't be fooled into thinking it's safe. In a movie where you can build a sidearm from dinner scraps, everything's dangerous.

(c) 1999 Stephen Graham Jones, http://www.cinemuck.com

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