eXistenZ is a bizarre, painstakingly trippy experience. Though it is a science fiction-leaning thriller, it does not resemble the similar, more easily entertaining (though intrinsically stimulating) The Matrix, for instance, a movie that was released the same year. Written and directed by David Cronenberg, one of film’s most onerous provocateurs, it proudly wears outlandish erraticism on its chest. It is, by turns, grotesque, darkly comedic, and beguilingly cerebral. It is the closest Cronenberg has come to devising a mainstream sci-fi action movie. But, being more of a peer to the David Lynches of the film community than to the Michael Bays, we can’t help but more often absorb what it has to intellectually and artistically offer, the effects of a suspenseful sequence hitting us at a far-off second.
It has a nifty premise to give meaning to its surreal hijinks. In eXistenZ, Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Allegra Geller, a video game designer in the process of releasing her newest creation, the eponymous virtual reality platform. As the film takes place in what can only be described as the near future, where game-makers are seen as artistic geniuses high above the 99%, Allegra is as important a figure as a world leader might be — she, along with few others, has refined a kind of video game so convincing in transporting its player into “another dimension” that the lines between reality and fantasy are spitefully blurred.
But Allegra’s eXistenZ is still in the early stages of post-production, and, as the film opens, she is testing it out on an elite audience curious to see what she has to offer. The “screening,” however, is interrupted by an assassin who tries to take her life, believing that her innovations in the entertainment industry will lead to the collapse of civilization itself. Though she only escapes with minor wounds, she worries about the future of her game, bringing innocent security guard Ted Pikul (Jude Law) along with her on a run for safety. Concerned that the “pod” containing all the data for her soon-to-be released creation may have been damaged in the bullet-ridden murder attempt, she convinces Ted to join her in entering eXistenZ to sort out any potential bugs. Their realities, though, may be affected in the procedure.
eXistenZ is offbeat in its satire and disarmingly serious in remittance to its screwy premise, and, like most other Cronenberg films, you either worship its quiddities or are unimpressed by them. As a critic who has gone for most of my reviewing career inclined to look the other way in response to Cronenberg’s body horror based features (Eastern Promises is good, but Dead Ringers is vomit inducing), eXistenZ makes for the first time in which his mutilations of What It Means To Be Human have comprehensively drawn me in on both a technical and cinematic level.
Cronenberg gets just about everything right here. His (perhaps not so) far-fetched satirical view of media consumerism (often compared to his earlier Videodrome, unseen by me) is sickening in its portrayal — in the future America depicted in the film, X-Boxes have been traded for what appear to be abnormally large, fleshy parasites, whose cords, looking rather umbilical, connect to ports located in the smalls of the player’s back. Consumers don’t sit in front of a screen and press a few buttons: they zone out and live in a fantasy world pre-programmed for them, so stupefyingly realistic that it comes as a shock when it turns out that other people in the artificial world only respond to dialogue when it is directly lifted from the script. At one point, Law’s character briefly takes a break from eXistenZ and worriedly admits that reality no longer feels real — the faux one, it seems, has taken its place.
Cronenberg finds the time to spotlight the humor that can arise from such a ludicrous setting, but one of my favorite things about eXistenZ is its self-assuredness; so grandly outrageous is it that we initially find ourselves bombarded with questions to ask. Minutes later, though, do we come to accept Cronenberg’s insanity, and the way Leigh and Law, top-shelf here, play it so straight that we applaud them for selling a hypothetical scenario that might otherwise come across as even being too moonstruck for a comic book. It’s a strange, magnificent film, needed to be seen to be believed. Only Cronenberg could have made it, and that’s a factor that makes its existence all the more unsurpassed. A