This review appeared in the Aug/Sept 1999 issue of Frontier, Australia's science fiction media magazine.
It's not merely a game... it's a whole new game system.
Director David Cronenberg has been a mainstay of the Canadian film industry for the past three decades. Starting with his first experimental science fiction shorts that he made while still a student at the University of Toronto, "Stereo" and "Crimes of the Future", Cronenberg went on to make a name for himself by making exploitational pictures that delved heavily into the horror and science fiction genres. Some of his memorable films from the early days included "Shivers" (1975) and "Rabid" (1977), and it was in these films that the director's penchant for dark and deviant sexual imagery first became apparent. These early films were also thematically centered about another common element of Cronenberg's films, the dangers of technology (both "Shivers" and "Rabid" dealt with the effects of medical technology gone awry). This theme was further developed in "Videodrome", in which James Woods' ("Contact") character became possessed by violent and erotic images being broadcast by an unknown television station. Moving into the Eighties and Nineties, the sexual imagery and technophobia of Cronenberg's work continued to develop in several well-received mainstream releases, such as "The Fly" and "Dead Ringers".
And while many might label Cronenberg as a visionary auteur, there are others who look at him in a much less favorable light. Due to the eccentric nature of his work, Cronenberg has been no stranger to controversy, both then and now. In his early days, Members of Parliament in Canada denounced the use of government funds in the financing Cronenberg's films, which were labeled 'disgusting'. In 1997, he won an award for 'audacity' at the Cannes Film Festival for his sexually charged adaptation of J.G. Ballard's "Crash". This film also saw its release in the United States delayed because Ted Turner, head of New Line Cinema, found the film 'revolting'.
"eXistenZ" is the latest film from the maverick director, and true to form, he once again looks at the dangers of runaway technology-- in this case, Cronenberg tackles the trendy topic of virtual reality. And like all of Cronenberg's other films, "eXistenZ" is rife with twisted sexual imagery and metaphors, though not as audacious as in his previous efforts. And though this is the fourth film of 1999 to tackle virtual reality ("The Matrix", "The Thirteenth Floor", and "Open Your Eyes" are the other three), there are still enough intriguing ideas in "eXistenZ" to warrant a look. Unfortunately, the film's script quickly falls apart in the second half as it succumbs to the predicable plot device of 'reality within reality', losing all narrative cohesion in the process and betraying the promise of a truly thought-provoking exploration of existence.
Are we still in the game?
The film opens with a live demonstration of a new virtual reality game from Antenna Research called eXistenZ, a session that is hosted by its designer, the alluring yet shy Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Unlike the video games of our present day reality, video games in "eXistenZ" are delivered directly into player's nervous system via the metaflesh game pod, a bizarre coupling of amphibian nervous systems and technology. These games pods deliver electrical impulses through an umbilical chord into the player's bio port, a hole drilled into the base of the spine.
Just as the demonstration is about to get underway with 12 volunteers from the gathered audience, it is cut short by a man wielding a bizarre-looking gun who attempts to assassinate Allegra. Apparently, a militant anti-game group has placed a $5 million bounty on Allegra's head, similar to the fadwah placed on Salman Rushdie a decade ago for writing "The Satanic Verses". Fortunately, Allegra is rescued by marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law of "Gattaca"), who was assigned to work security for the demonstration. Not knowing who can be trusted, they hit the road and go into hiding.
Unfortunately, Allegra's game pod, holding the only copy of eXistenZ, was damaged during the assassination attempt, and it is unclear whether or not the file of the $38 million computer game is permanently corrupted. As a result, Allegra enlists Ted's assistance to help her test the system by playing eXistenZ. However, Ted is one of the few people who does not possess a bio-port, and so they head down to a country gas station and ask the attendant, Gas (Willem Dafoe of "Speed 2"), to install one. To their dismay, the simple backroom procedure is not as simple as they expect, and the pair is barely able to escape with their lives when Gas attempts to cash in on the bounty.
From there, Allegra and Ted drop in on the mountain hideaway of an old colleague from Antenna Research (Ian Holm of "The Sweet Hereafter" and "The Fifth Element"), where they can test eXistenZ without distraction. Upon entry into the virtual world of eXistenZ, Ted is surprised by the level of sensory immersion as he learns the 'rules' of the game, with Allegra serving as his tour guide. However, complications soon set in when the game begins throwing the two players into some unexpected situations, forcing Allegra and Ted to question the very nature of their own reality.
"eXistenZ" is at its best when we are at Ted's side, exploring both the 'real world' and the fictitious environment of the game, learning the rules and the quirks. Cronenberg's script does a remarkable job explaining how things work in the film's reality, raising some intriguing ideas on the future directions of entertainment technology, as well as illustrating the perverse melding of technology and biology. Like all his previous films, Cronenberg goes heavy on the sexual subtext, such as the film's numerous double entendres and the almost sexual act of plugging a game pod umbilical into a bio port. At the same time, the Cronenberg also seems to have his tongue firmly planted in his cheek throughout the film, which is evident in the frequent self-referential humor that acts as a running commentary on the bizarre events of the story, and pokes fun at filmmaking in general.
Central to the theme of "eXistenZ" is the subject of gaming addiction, in which players find themselves unable to pull themselves away from the artificial worlds of the games they play. And though Cronenberg does build a compelling case to illustrate why the stimulation of virtual reality is so enticing, it quickly gets lost in the film's confusing second half, which discards further technophobic exploration in favor of labyrinthine intrigue that ultimately proves to be pointless. By the film's end, the story's cliché "Twilight Zone"-type plot twist ends up coming contrived, undermining whatever intentions Cronenberg had.
Furthermore, "eXistenZ" is marred by the lack of truly engaging performances. The standout performance of the film belongs to Leigh, whose portrayal of the guarded and demure game designer is the most believable in the whole film. Law never seems to come to the foreground with his rather flat performance, leaving Leigh to carry the entire film. As for the rest of the cast, a number of terrific actors end up being wasted in a number of bit parts, including Dafoe, Holm, Don McKellar (seen recently in "The Red Violin" and "Last Night"), and Sarah Polley (seen recently in "Go"). Thankfully, in the case of Dafoe and Polley, some of the actors still manage to do a tremendous job with what little they are given to work with.
"eXistenZ" is certainly an interesting take on the whole virtual reality genre, and it sheds some appealing ideas in the first half. Whereas "The Matrix" is more about pyrotechnics with some thought-starters thrown in for good measure, "eXistenZ" is a more intellectual approach that attempts to explore the evolution and psychological implications of interactive technology. However, this premise with promise quickly dissipates as the script's hackneyed plot mechanics reduce the film's psychological ruminations to a mere afterthought, leaving the audience nothing more than a silly exercise in existentialism.