eXistenZ (1999)



David Cronenberg continues his unconventional prescience with eXistenZ, a curious but spirited vision of science fiction couched in the world of video games. The 1999 movie is based on a screenplay by the director and features many of the usual collaborators, including cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and composer Howard Shore.

Cronenberg’s eXistenZ continues the auteur’s exploration of technology and biology and may not seem to have much to do with 1996’s Crash at the outset, but the textures of dread, sadness and distrust are ever-present. So, too, is the aspect of self-delusion that that coats so much of Naked Lunch, The Fly and almost everything else.

In eXistenZ, the world belongs to video game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She’s testing her new virtual reality game on a focus group when an assassin (Kris Lemche) attacks her with a gun made from organic matter. Allegra escapes with marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law).

Allegra insists that something has happened to her game pod, the device that plays the titular game. She wants to test it, but she needs someone friendly to assist her. Ted volunteers, but he lacks the bio-port to get into the game. When this matter is addressed, he enters the virtual reality world with Allegra.

As with most Cronenbergian explorations of the human condition, there’s a lot to unpack. The video game is an extension of reality accessed with a game pod, which is an organic-looking thing. Details are revealed about the viscera of the pod that are rather squelchy, suggesting something biological at play.

That suggestion is advanced with the accessing of the gaming world, which takes place through a hole at the base of the spine. The UmbyCord is inserted into the orifice, which makes Ted more than a little queasy on account of his dislike for surgical penetration. It’s a shame. The future is full of surgical penetration.

If some of eXistenZ seems reminiscent of Videodrome’s fine art of implanting VHS tapes into James Woods’ belly, it’s by design. Cronenberg’s examination of technology becoming flesh has infused many if not most of his narratives in some fashion. eXistenZ makes this melding a game. Literally.

Everything in Cronenberg’s world is game-like, from firm line delivery to unstable accents to the behaviours of NPCs as they wait for the protagonists to say the right lines. Sometimes, it’s meta. Sometimes, it’s silly. A Chinese restaurant is called a Chinese Restaurant. A Chinese waiter is known as the Chinese Waiter.

Leigh and Law are compelling, especially as inversions of conventional science fiction heroes. In eXistenZ, Leigh’s Allegra is the goddess. She’s in charge, tearing through the world while Law’s Ted plays damsel. Cronenberg takes this to another level when he has Allegra breach Ted’s opening.

This inversion of convention never disrupts the film’s feeling of fun, however, and that’s what makes eXistenZ interesting as a work of science fiction. It has many of the classic elements of the genre, but everything is overthrown. There are no lasting cityscapes and no lasers, but there is a backwoods fish plant and a gun that shoots human teeth.

With eXistenZ, Cronenberg deconstructs a world in which technology and the human form are again betrothed in a symbiotic relationship. Things get weird in the wired world, with sex, violence and gloopy Chinese food among the truths in this revolutionary realm of the new flesh.


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