(David Cronenberg, Can/US/UK, 1999)
After some years floundering on the edge of the mainstream, it is good to see Cronenberg go right back to his low-budget past to seek inspiration for his latest film. In the near-future, "eXistenZ" is the newest and greatest gaming experience from designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She meets Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a novice security guard, at a public preview of the new game. eXistenZ is part of an organic gaming system, the main console of which - the MetaFlesh Game-Pod (!) - is a living organism genetically engineered from fertilized amphibian eggs stuffed with synthetic DNA. Players plug directly into the system via their 'bioport' - a fashionable addition to the base of one's spine to enable full sensory interaction with the MetaFlesh system - and the human body is used as the power source for the game pod. When fanatics burst into the preview test and attempt to kill Geller, Pikul is forced into action and escapes with the game designer - setting up a cat-and-mouse chase between the world-famous Geller and her would-be assassins. Whilst on the run, Geller convinces Pikul to have the operation to implant a bioport so that he too can experience the cutting edge of gaming technology. The two of them enter into the game world of eXistenZ where murder and intrigue abound and the boundaries of reality and fantasy are almost impossible to perceive. As they spend more and more time in the system, becoming embroiled in a complex and dangerous game plot, their bodies in the real world are exposed to the forces of the anti-eXistenZalists.
This is the first film since the ground-breaking Videodrome in 1982 that Cronenberg has written a completely original screenplay, and that must go some way to explaining the remarkable similarities with that magnificent earlier film. The opening sequence that depicts a organic gun-wielding maniac who yells "Death to eXiztenZ, death to Allegra Geller" is a close echo of an almost identical scene at the end of Videodrome when Max Renn assassinates the CEO of a spectacles company at a trade launch show. And in many respects, eXistenZ can be considered as 'Videodrome Part 2'. Primarily this is because the film concentrates on creating a narrative as seen by the main male protagonist (James Woods in the earlier film, Jude Law in eXistenZ) whose view of reality is distorted by a technology that affects his senses and perceptions. In this regard the films are incredibly similar, and as the story in both develops the disorientation increases until the audience is having difficulty ascertaining what is real and what is imaginary/artificial. This works wonderfully in Videodrome, and even though Max Renn's hallucinations increase at time passes, the duration of these sequences in the film is relatively short. In eXistenZ however, large parts of the running time occur actually in the game world with Geller and Pikul playing out their eXistenZ characters. Of course, this means that it is difficult for the viewer not to get drawn into the narrative of eXistenZ the game and loose track of the narrative for eXistenZ the film.
Cronenberg deliberately lures us into being interested in the story arc of the game so that we can relate to the characters being played by Geller and Pikul and, by extension, care about what happens to them. The director even plays with this thread (and the audience) by having Geller and Pikul stop momentarily (forcing the other game characters into a 'game loop' of repetitive behaviour until a player says or does the correct thing to advance the plot) and have Pikul express concerns about how the plot is developing or that their bodies may be vulnerable in the real world to the anti-eXistenZalists. But these jolts of reference gradually disappear and one is inexorably pulled into the fate of the game characters. The acting is pretty good all around - Jennifer Jason Leigh is particularly impressive, Jude Law is the best I've ever seen him (I'd not been convinced to date), and with a supporting cast that includes Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe (in an outrageously camp cameo as a gas station owner) and up 'n' coming Christopher (Elizabeth) Eccleston you could hardly ask for more in the thespian stakes.
Cronenberg's trademark, so-called 'biological horror', is to the fore in eXistenZ. In particular, the biological technology of the MetaFlesh Game Pod system provides the director with plenty of opportunities to visualise some pseudo-sexual actions such as inserting an UmbyCord into a person's bioport - no prizes for guessing what that action looks like! The pod happens to be started by depressing a nipple-like protuberance which causes the unit to undulate and ripple with energy. He also uses this as an opportunity to introduce humour that occasionally borders on the 'nudge, nudge, wink, wink' variety. In fact, despite the obvious allusions to intellectual concepts, such as existentialism, the script contains a refreshingly persistent sense of humour throughout. This is one of the film's strongest assets and it is one of the ways in which it does significantly differ from the early films. Cronenberg neatly weaves in the ideas of loss of free will, panic at the loss of control, media manipulation of the masses and other heavy-weight subjects in a relatively light package, for this is far from as harrowing and bleak as Videodrome. Unfortunately, the end result lacks bite, and is too derivative of Cronenberg's own back catalogue to stand strong in its own right. The whole thing is to too 'soft' (it doesn't push any boundaries) to be as important as most of the Canadian's pre-The Dead Zone work, although it's certainly better than some films post that period. One gets the impression that Cronenberg was having something of a fun time making this - if he'd wanted it to be as controversial as the earlier part of his canon he could clearly have made it so but seems to have chosen not to. eXistenZ is undoubtedly the work of a mature director, but one who retains an interest in those odd and slightly darker things that forced him into international recognition many years ago, and we should always welcome and encourage that. I'm happy to suggest you go along and see this film, indeed, I'd encourage you to do so. Just don't expect the impact of Cronenberg's more challenging and best work.
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