eXistenZ May 19, 2022
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Callum Keith Rennie
Robert A. Silverman
1 Hr., 37 Mins.
eave it to David Cronenberg to transfigure the act of video-gaming into a kind of sin of the flesh. In eXistenZ (1999), the body horror filmmaker’s follow-up to the mutedly fucked-up Crash (1996), the characters live in a hazily defined future where you don’t turn on a video-game console by plugging one wire into one socket and another over there. Most people these days instead have ports installed on their
bodies — a cousin, kind of, of an ear piercing — and can plug their game consoles into themselves. (The preferred location to do this just may force the tramp stamp into extinction.) This port helps take the whole “immersion” thing for which video games are celebrated to the next level. You turn a game on and suddenly it gets hard — even impossible — to decipher whether you’re still playing or if a while back you were again plunged into real life but didn’t realize it. The wires connect to your nervous system, so you experience the gameplay like it were your life.
Our entrance into this alternate reality coincides with the latest release from Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a game designer so uber-famous worldwide that there comes a point, mid-movie, where she’s recognized by a gas-station attendant immediately inclined to literally bow down at her feet. eXistenZ opens with Allegra debuting the eponymous game — which is played on a brain-like console capable of succumbing to disease and whose connective wire looks like an umbilical cord — to a focus group. No one knows much about it except for that there is no one universal experience playing eXistenZ: it adjusts to its players’ subconscious desires. When someone plays, massaging the console perched in their lap, they look a little like they’re inching toward orgasm, eyes aflutter and mouths spasmodically twitching.
Just as testing lifts off, though, a “Realist” — someone in this futureworld radically against the domination of video games over society — in the audience pulls out a tooth-bulleted gun made from a chicken carcass (really) and lethally shoots several of Allegra’s colleagues. She survives, though her shoulder and her console are grazed, and is escorted out of the building by Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a marketing guy with her company. They drive toward nowhere in particular (it may be unsafe, right now, to find seclusion in a familiar spot); all Allegra can think about is going back into eXistenZ. Her pod contained the only copy of the game, and it may have been compromised.
Since it needs multiple players to properly function, Ted, who’s never gotten a port installed because the thought of being penetrated (in that way) gives him the willies, becomes a hesitant partner. He and Allegra have an interesting mismatched dynamic, like a thrown-together pair in a crime procedural that has to learn how to get along. With a face and composure suggesting someone who’s lived through a lot, Leigh is immediately assuasive as the world-weary genius. And Law, with his soft features and poolish eyes, is credibly innocent and stumbling as a guy naïve to both the gaming sphere and the intensity of a manhunt.
eXistenZ subsequently moves freely between the real world and the fictional one whose basis Allegra has crafted. Cronenberg, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, comes up with a cunning, conspiracy thriller-lite plot in the video game’s world that may or may not be entwined with what’s happening in the supposed real one. The plotting is tense, and it unfurls with the satisfying neatness we’d see, fittingly, in a video game. Everything is guided by an asymmetrical sense of humor that both gives the movie a kooky levity and feels just right as it gets harder to distinguish reality from the imagined.
Though one instinctively might look for a metaphor or critique of video-game culture writ large in eXistenZ, Cronenberg, to my eye, is more invested in the face value, B-movie fun he evokes. If it has broader aims, they feel mostly contained in what the film seems informed by: the weird-to-think-about, and inescapable, reality that entertainment doesn’t merely help mold our tastes but influences our conceptions of the world both innocuously and perniciously. eXistenZ is the closest Cronenberg has come to making a nifty, economic thriller meant above all to be escapist. He succeeds. Though with most of its scenes set in grubby Chinese restaurants and smelly trout farms where dissections are commonplace, and with the overall “mission” maybe too low-key for a video game, the game at its center doesn’t look all that fun to play. That prevents the film from fully taking off: you can’t believe anyone would be obsessed with playing shit like this. B+