Thursday, August 30, 2012

eXistenZ (1999)

While the majority of the films of David Cronenberg are very visual affairs, any fan will tell you that they’re equally as cerebral, as he’s able to not only blown your mind with radical images, but with ideas as well. Idea’s that will be lingering in you brain just as long as the amazing visuals. While the metaphors in his films are unquestionably extreme, the more the surface is scratched the more water the ideas hold, gaining even more potency throughout the years. Given his unique treatments on revolutionary   technologies in past films, it made perfect sense that Cronenberg would tackle the topic of video games with eXistenZ. Think of how far the world of gaming had come when this film was released in 1999 and compare it to today, with all the advancements made in terms of game play, graphics and characterizations, not to mention the massive popularity of online RPG’s (that’s “Role Playing Games” for you squares out there) and the communities that form as a result. The difference is night and day. When this film hit video stores I was still spending quality time with the classic consoles (countless hours were lost in the 90’s thanks to the NES, Super Nintendo and original Play Station, but that’s another story onto itself) and was already a confirmed Cronenberg fanatic, so it goes without saying that I was all over this film. I’ve always found it to be one of Cronenberg’s most underappreciated works, and after having recently revisited it twice in the last few months, I now find it be an even more important entry into his filmography, as it not only found him going “back to his roots” so to speak, but the case could be made that some of the more psychological elements of the film foreshadowed what was to come with his next few films.

During a demonstration for the new virtual reality video game “eXistenZ”, an assassination attempt is made on the life of the games designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The attempt fails and Geller is rushed to safety, wounded, by her assigned security guard, marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law). Geller’s game pod, which contained the only copy of “eXistenZ” was badly damaged during the attempt on her life, and the only way she can survey the damage is to play the game with someone trustworthy, Pikul. Despite Pikul’s initial hesitation, he and Geller finally play “eXistenZ”, and the further the two advance in the game, the more the game play beings to mimic their real life dangers, gradually confusing the two as to which world they’re actually inhabiting as the lines between virtual and actual reality become more blurred by the minute.

eXistenZ has been dismissed by some as a mere rehash of Cronenberg’s earlier masterwork Videodrome (1983) (I’ve even seen it referred to in some places as “Videogamedrome”), and while it’s true that the common themes of both films do mirror each other, even some of the slogans heard throughout the film are somewhat similar (“DEATH TO THE DEMONESS ALLEGRA GELLER!”) simply writing the film off as a rehash is an unfair assessment. A more accurate description of the film would be a compilation of expanded upon idea’s that Cronenberg has explored in the past using video games as the catalyst, such as the relationship between the human body and technology previously touched upon in Videodrome, The Fly (1986) and Crash (1996), the identity crises of Dead Ringers (1988) and there were even certain portions of the film where I was reminded of the surreal Interzone of Naked Lunch (1991). With eXistenZ, Cronenberg takes the concept of video games as escapism to it’s most extreme, by having players not just wanting to play the games, but to actually “live” them. It’s suggested at one point in the film that Geller would rather have no contact with the outside world at all, preferring to sit in a room all day designing games, in her own world (I can relate), the world that she created, and it’s a world that the majority of the people in this odd universe that Cronenberg has created would rather spend their time in. Another telling moment regarding the escapist mentality of the players of Gellar’s game comes when the character of Gas exclaims to Pikul that he’s a gas station attendant “only on the most pathetic level of reality”, and it’s interesting to observe the people attending the game demonstration at the beginning of the film, as a good number of them appear to be middle aged, and even some much older. This says less about the age of the people actually playing video games, as age obviously isn’t a factor when it comes to enjoying games, but rather it’s Cronenberg saying that there are people of all age groups wanting a way out of the mundane reality they live in. It’s this idea of having two separate “realties” where eXistenZ really shines, as once Geller and Pikul enter the game, the film becomes a twisted mindfuck.

Like any great video game, eXistenZ might start off relativity simple but the further along Geller and Pikul get in the game, it becomes increasingly more complex in terms of deciphering what’s real and what’s the game, as elements from both worlds begin to intertwine and Cronenberg yanks us out of one world into another and back again to the point where we’re just as perplexed as Geller and Pikul, and like the best video games, despite the level of difficulty, it‘s all to easy to get sucked in very quickly, and you’ll want to follow Geller and Pikul all the way to the film’s cryptic end. Unlike a lot of films that deal with this type of material, eXistenZ doesn’t rely on computerized images, which was wise on Cronenberg’s part, after all the purpose of Geller’s games is to present the player with a more exiting extension of their own existence, plus the “real world”-eqsue presentation of the game makes it all the more ambiguous as to which world the audience as well as Geller and Pikul are experiencing. Having game characters stand idly by until the right game dialogue is spoken to them was a nice touch as well, something gamers will no doubt pick up on instantly. The classic Cronenberg theme of technology fusing with the flesh, which was pushed to it’s logical, ultimate extremes in Crash (in a non “fantastic” way, IE no virtual reality or things of that nature) comes into play by having the game literally plug into the player’s body via an umbilical cord attached to the game pods, which themselves look like thick mounds of flesh (Geller even refers to her pod as her “baby”, even treating it like it was a newborn). This idea is taken even further by having the game run on the body’s central nervous system, and Cronenberg once again finds a secondary use for anatomical parts with the organic, human teeth shooting gun made from bones used in the attempt on Geller’s life. Although nowhere near as sexually transgressive as Crash, there does appear to be some of the tech fetish from that film carried over into eXistenZ, given Geller’s euphoric writhing while plugged into the game, not to mention some bio-port licking thrown in for good measure. This is a Cronenberg film after all.

Is it just me or did this film totally fly under the radar when it was released? I don’t recall ever seeing any TV spots or any other kind of promotion for this film during it’s theatrical run, only finding out about it when it became available for rental, probably due to a certain other film dealing with a similar topic having been released around the same time hogging all the spotlight. It got pretty good reviews all around but it’s still a shame it didn’t get more recognition back then as it’s got pretty much everything going for it. The word “chemistry” comes to mind when it comes to Leigh and Law, who are fantastic together, playing off each other perfectly. Along with being mind numbingly beautiful, Leigh brings just the right amount of reservation to her performance as the introverted Geller and Law’s awkward apprehension about everything leads to some light comedic moments, especially the moments with Dafoe. Speaking of, although his screen time is brief, any Dafoe is good Dafoe, especially when he’s playing such an odd part. Cronenberg regular Robert A. Silverman also makes a memorable appearance and naturally his character is just as weird as Hans from Naked Lunch, plus the aforementioned Ian Holm in a minor role as Geller‘s mentor. eXistenZ actually wouldn’t be a bad place to start for someone who’s new to Cronenberg. It’s an overall great representation of what to expect visually and psychologically from his films, complete with all the trademark bizarreness fans know and love intact. Whether or not you know anything about video games won’t hinder your enjoyment of the film, but if you have an interest in such topics, consider it a bonus as you’d be hard pressed to find a film with a more original and creative take on such things. eXistenZ” IS PAUSED!


  1. I only got to see it cause it played for week at a local theater. About 10 years ago I found the novelization of this film. Never read it but wondering how much is changed.

    1. Never even knew there was a novelization. It'd be an interesting compare and contrast for sure.