E: eXistenZ (1999)

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EXISTENZeXistenZ was David Cronenberg’s first completely original script since 1983’s Videodrome, my personal favorite of his many movies. It’s a bit disheartening that the two movies share themes, but then, Cronenberg hasn’t exactly hidden his obsessions over the years, and it only makes sense that he returns to those themes employing a different medium, a different Macguffin. In Videodrome, it was TV; in eXistenZ, it’s video games.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is Allegra Gellar, a rock star among game designers. eXistenZ is her new game, and the movie begins with a focus group gathered in what appears to be a rundown church. The people are there to play-test eXistenZ, and here is where we get the first of the Cronenbergian buzzconcepts, as each participant is assigned a “gamepod” made of “meta-flesh” which they will plug in to their “bio-ports”.

Sorry, I really am taken by that bizarre gun.

Plunging the viewer into the story in media res and filling in the details of this world is a trick Cronenberg knows well, and as 12 random volunteers plug themselves in to their borrowed gamepods and are networked to Allegra’s pod with cables that look suspiciously like umbilical cords, a latecomer arrives with an older gamepod. He takes a seat in a pew, takes out the older, larger gamepod, and from it pulls a bizarre looking gun, which he uses to shoot Allegra. A security guard shoots and kills this would-be assassin, and the wounded Allegra is entrusted to the care of a PR intern (Jude Law). They escape in the panic and go into hiding until they can figure out who wants to kill Allegra and why.

existenz-05-gBesides the gamepods, which are flesh-colored and seem to pulse and breathe while they are being operated, the assassin’s gun is the only clue you need that this is a Cronenberg movie: to get past the metal detector at the door, the gun is made of bone and meat and fires human teeth instead of bullets. That is the Cronenbergiest thing ever.

To continue coining new words, things get Cronenbergier when Allegra discovers that her new guardian, Ted Pikul, doesn’t have a bio-port, and we learn these sockets that run directly into the spinal column are installed routinely in shopping malls. “It’s like getting your ears pierced,” says Allegra.

Her gamepod was injured in the attempted assassination, and apparently has the only copy of eXistenZ, which has so far cost $38 million to develop. She has to access the game to make sure it has survived, and for that she needs a partner, and they seek out a black market bio-port supplier for Pikul. That this supplier is played by Willem Dafoe should raise red flags.

existenz02Once Allegra and Pikul do access eXistenZ is when we start traveling through Cronenberg mindfuck territory. Pikul turns out to be really good at this new virtual reality experience, though his perception of what is real and what is game begins to get very soft. Allegra is surprised at developments in her own game, which seem to be the work of the people trying to kill her, the Reality Underground.

I admit I approached this with some misgivings; near future science fiction has a tendency to get very embarrassing very fast (Johnny Mnemonic‘s cyberspace sequences were embarrassing out of the box). Cronenberg sidesteps the whole thing pretty neatly with his body horror version of the future; hell, even Jude Law’s cell phone is some sort of glowing lump. So the most jarring thing about this future is that Leigh, Law, and Christopher Eccleston are so freaking young. (not to mention that Law’s American accent is really good.)

eXistenz is probably the closest we are ever going to get to a decent film version of Philip K. Dick’s trippier stuff, like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or Ubik (I would love to be proven wrong on that). Creepier stuff like synthetically mutated amphibians being harvested to provide the meta-flesh for gamepods put aside, it uses nestled realities with an effectiveness that wouldn’t be seen again until Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and, like its older brother, Videodrome, it leaves the viewer, like the characters, unsure of what truly is reality.

1 Comment

  1. I remember that eXistenZ came out the same year as The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor. Obviously, 1999 was a pretty good year for mindfrack SF.

    Of the three, it’s the one I’ve never seen, because I’m not a huge fan of Cronenberg (Naked Lunch made me…left a…really trying to avoid a bad pun here.), which is far more about my tastes than Cronenberg’s talent.

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