by Evan Waters
[Evan Waters looks at movies, books and comics at Club Parnassus.]
eXistenZ has a bit of a place in my heart. It was the first David Cronenberg film I saw theatrically, having more or less discovered the man's work on video the year before. That was in 1999, a strange and far-off land, and seeing it in the immediate aftermath of the Columbine shootings—with media violence and video games in particular targeted as influences—made it resonate strongly. A decade later, it holds up in very unusual ways; it's unconventional even for Cronenberg and is a bit awkward in terms of how it's built and put together, but the sheer audacious oddness of it pulls us through and animates it with a unique energy.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is Allegra Geller, the designer of a new virtual reality game called eXistenZ. The game is contained in a fleshy organic pod and experienced by the player via a neural port in their spine, and during a marketing demo (led by Christopher Eccleston, of all people), an assassin attempts to kill her. She escapes with marketing trainee Ted Pikul (a pre-ubiquitous Jude Law) and tries to hide out in the countryside.
In the midst of all the violence the pod containing the master copy of eXistenZ has sustained some trauma (like unplugging a flash drive without ejecting it, only ickier), and she needs to go in the game with a second player to see what damage has been done. Ted has a fear of surgical penetration and never got the spinal cord port. After a run-in with a gas station attendant named Gas (Willem Dafoe in a small, but memorable, role), the two head out to a workshop run by Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm), a gamepod technician/surgeon who gives them shelter from whatever forces have declared a fatwa on Geller and her game. Allegra and Ted enter eXistenZ, and find it can surprise even its designer.
The game of eXistenZ is unlike anything you'd expect or anticipate. It's a slimy and foul-smelling world of mutant amphibians being used as both gamepod material and the special at the local Chinese restaurant, where game stores sell miniature pods that squeeze themselves entirely into your spinal port and titles sold include "Hit By A Car." But a closer look reveals more believable game-like elements than you'd think; the story requires the players recite certain lines or perform certain actions almost in the same way that cut scenes take away agency, and the twisted logic of Geller's world brings to mind a number of graphic adventure games (though perhaps without the inventory management.) In 1999 it didn't seem like something people would rush to play, but since then we've had the massive success of life simulation games (MMO experiences where interaction is as much the point as achieving goals), and of course, the "realism is brown" aesthetic which is less visually pleasant than anything at Trout Farm. Cronenberg may not have played many games, but he taps into the strange narrative logic that pops up in a lot of them...and I do like the "Pause" feature.
Cronenberg has yet to make an outright comedy, but eXistenZ comes damn close. For once he allows the weirdness of his ideas to slide over into the realm of "a little goofy," and since Ted is a neophyte he gets to act with logical disgust to the idea of people having holes opened at the smalls of their backs to allow connection to fleshy breathing creatures that are also like computer drives and game consoles. The sexual implications of the bioport process (and the ports themselves) aren't overlooked, and fun is had with that as well. There's a deliberate corniness to a lot of the proceedings, which doesn't undermine their believability so much as make us think the entire world is skewed. Despite being set in the near future, eXistenZ avoids almost all the usual visual cyberpunk cliches. It's set almost entirely in the countryside, among old buildings, and while I'm sure budget was a factor in this decision, it contributes to the film's low-key tone.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is terrific here; her playful sultriness is coupled with an offbeat attitude, resulting in a believably eccentric artist figure who both leads Pikul into temptation and is pulled along with him. Law is an excellent straight man for the film's many humorous interludes, and the supporting cast is littered with memorable faces, important when we have to keep track of identities in real and game worlds. While a lot of movies that play with reality want us to work out which story is the "real" one, eXistenZ seems to go the extreme postmodernist route and suggest that there's no effective difference. It's all levels of reality, and bleed-through can happen in either direction.
The film's media commentary is also interesting. It's interesting that "realists"—not moralists of any particular stripe—are pegged as the anti-game forces both in eXistenZ and the world above it; in the end, all debates about art and entertainment being irresponsible come down to the problem that they have influential power in the first place. As in Videodrome, the medium is the message; what eXistenZ is, is influenced by the people playing it, and it influences them back in strange and unpredictable ways. My reading of this is colored a bit by the fact that I know that Cronenberg himself is the man who said, "an artist has no social responsibility whatsoever," and who believes in near-absolute creative freedom (a position with which I'm very sympathetic); he's not going to go the fearful, reactionary route, but he flirts with the idea of negative consequences to fantasy. He likes to leave things open to interpretation.
The film moves a little slowly, and the combination of humor and suspense isn't always seamless. But then, this is not a movie that follows the rules of any particular genre very closely. It's a weird little story that Cronenberg wanted to tell, and it feels organic and unforced. I love his films because they manage to be highly intellectual and highly visceral at the same time, never feeling like abstract treatises on this, that, or the other. eXistenZ raises a lot of questions, but it also gets you in the spine a few times, and that's what sticks with you.