Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 37 min.
Release Date: April 23rd, 1999 MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Cronenberg Actors: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Sarah Polley, Christopher Eccleston, Don McKellar
or a product testing seminar of eXistenZ by Antenna Research, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the world’s greatest game designer, is employed to personally conduct the trial of the $38 million project. “eXistenZ is not just a game. It’s an entirely new game system.” With 12 prototype metaflesh game pods to port into (which look like squirming globs of cancerous skin), a group of volunteers are informed that they’ll have information downloaded directly into their minds (through a bioport fitting, a surgical penetration of the spine – a procedure so common that it’s done in the mall like an ear piercing). “Don’t panic, no matter what happens.”
Just as the participants are mentally linked, an intruder pulls out a concealed weapon (itself looking like an alien appendage, which fires human teeth projectiles) to assassinate Geller. His initial shot misses, though he’s able to graze her shoulder before security personnel gun him down. Marketing trainee and temporary metal detector operator Ted Pikul (Jude Law) is instructed to take Allegra out of the building, with the warning that no one can be trusted. It doesn’t help that the product demonstration was staged in a church out in the middle of the countryside, far from their corporate offices or police assistance.
The film begins wth a painfully long, opening credits sequence, which shows far too many filmmakers’ names, flashing slowly onto the screen, with practically nothing as visual imagery to distract from the monotony. It’s a strange introduction, considering that it provides an unnecessarily stark contrast to the coming events, which are so unusual that they’re frequently laughable. The setting is definitely in the future (or an alternate reality), yet the environments and vehicles aren’t futuristic. Instead, only personal technology is advanced, such as a Pink Phone, which is yet another squishy lump of organic putty that doubles as a handheld device.
“You blew my pod!” Every other line of dialogue sounds like a euphemism for sex, which is probably intentional, considering that Geller seems to want to touch or seduce everyone within her grasp (she’s quick to lick her fingers and shove them into Ted’s freshly-gouged bioport). Once they start playing the game, their avatars are programmed to jump all over each other – and the use of infected controllers can cause infections, as if STDs. The eccentricities are so weird that they can’t be described as anything other than outright comedy, especially as new bits of otherworldly information are thrust onto viewers while withholding the most pertinent details. What exactly is eXistenZ? Why must it be hardwired into living tissue? And why are Allegra and Ted being followed by a two-headed mutated amphibian?
Although the story is exceptionally outlandish, the body horror is right in line with writer/director David Cronenberg’s moviemaking style. When the first hired killer is apprehended, he isn’t just shot – he’s battered by waves of gunfire that cause chunks of muscle and fat to spray all over the place. Likewise, a bullet extraction is shown in close-up, while subsequent deaths and violence are exaggerated and graphic. Normally, Cronenberg’s visual proclivities should be enough to engage audiences, but this plot is so confusingly bizarre that it’s difficult to maintain interest. Part of this predicament comes from the dialogue and character behaviors; the actors take things seriously, but they’re asked to do and say some uncomfortably ludicrous things.
“You have to play the game to find out why you’re playing the game.” Going down the rabbit hole grows ever odder, especially when the players have to go into another game once they’re inside the initial layer of the game; their avatars progress by traversing levels and sequences of virtual reality, which become more and more indistinguishable from their existences outside the game. And for some inexplicable reason, gameplay prompts the protagonists to eat grotesque foods, to work in grotesque places, and to murder people in grotesque ways. Had Cronenberg toned down the kookiness, it might have all been more palatable. “I’m feeling a little disconnected from my real life.”
“eXistenZ” does provide commentary on virtual reality games, free will, ethical dilemmas, the possibility of losing one’s sense of reality or the questioning of identity, and the ability of players to conduct virtual activities far beyond what they’d be willing to do with genuine consequences. Where the film loses its sensibility is when the artificial intelligence can generate new storylines to communicate themes with the players; when those players can bring elements of the game back into the real world; and when the system is spoken about as if a living entity. “You murdered my game!” As with many of these types of twisty, mind-bending sci-fi thrillers, reality isn’t always what it seems – and paranoia fuels betrayals. As a multi-layered cautionary tale and satire, perhaps “eXistenZ” is brilliant. But by the end, it ultimately seems like a lot of nonsense. “You’re beginning to feel a bit like a game character.”
– Mike Massie