Film (1999). Alliance Atlantis and Serendipity Point Films present in association with Natural Nylon a Robert Lantos production. Directed by David Cronenberg. Written by Cronenberg. Cast includes Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm, Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Don McKellar. 97 minutes. Colour.
eXistenZ, Cronenberg's first original script since Videodrome (1982), returns to his familiar themes of media, fetishistic sex and the fusion of biology with technology. Indeed, the film feels at times to be Cronenbergian to the point of Parody. It was one of a spate of millennarian films dealing with virtual realities and Conceptual Breakthrough; other examples are Dark City (1998), The Truman Show (1998), The Matrix (1999) and The Thirteenth Floor (1999).
In a nondescript rural building, computer game designer Allegra Geller (Leigh) shows off her latest creation: eXistenZ, a Virtual Reality game played by inserting fleshy plugs directly into the spinal cord via "bioports". The first of many "pro-reality" assassins tries to kill her with an organic gun constructed from teeth and bone, and she flees into the woods with gaming virgin Ted Pikul (Law). While on the run, Geller convinces the fearful Pikul to submit to the penetration of his body by her game, and the two then play eXistenZ. The game proves to be bloody, disgusting and nearly incomprehensible, and the distinction between game and reality becomes blurred. The whole surreal story is revealed to have been a game of its own: transCendenZ, with Pikul and Geller merely roleplaying their characters. In "reality", they are the true anti-game assassins and they murder transCendenZ's creator (McKellar). It is an open question whether there are further levels of gaming existence.
Many viewers of eXistenZ will find it a major flaw that Cronenberg appears to have little understanding or enjoyment of Videogames as they exist in the real world. The Game-Worlds of eXistenZ and transCendenZ are apparently largely moulded by the player, but they lack obvious objectives, plots or exciting things to do. It is as if the elaborate virtual-reality story is no more than a tool for creating an arena in which the director can mount tableaux of deliquescence, deformity and metamorphic flux. In this ever-changing phantasmagoria, the presence of variously slimy bodily fluids is a constant. The script makes a point of how gaming can desensitize the player to violence or lead to addiction, but Cronenberg covered that same ground with more conviction in Videodrome (1982). eXistenZ is an entertaining little film, rather like a cross between a Philip K Dick story and David Lynch's film Eraserhead (1977). While satisfying to fans of Cronenberg's bodily metaphors, this may be a victory of style over content, for much of what the film says has been said by Cronenberg (and some others) before. The film was novelized as eXistenZ (1999) by Christopher Priest, writing under the pseudonym of John Luther Novak. [JN/PN]
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