Movies about the difficulty of telling reality from virtual reality seem to be all the rage
lately. Both the recent hit The Matrix and the upcoming The Thirteenth Floor (not to be
confused with the upcoming The 13th Warrior--there’s another strange trend...) are all about the
idea that the world we see may in fact be nothing but a simulation. And now, with eXistenZ,
David Cronenberg has made his contribution to this rapidly evolving sub-genre.
Cronenberg is known mainly for surreal films that either freak you out, gross you out, or
both. And in many of these films Cronenberg shows a rather disturbing preoccupation with
weird sex (see The Fly, Naked Lunch, and Crash).
So eXistenZ is really nothing new for Cronenberg. In it, he is once again fiddling with all
of our various parts. He fiddles with our stomachs by way of the yucky, slimy, and disturbingly
organic special effects; he fiddles with our minds by way of the surreal, cleverly constructed
story about extremely realistic virtual reality games; and he fiddles with our baser instincts by
way of the numerous visual and auditory double-entendres. The problem is, he plays with us a
bit too much. His point is to see how clever and manipulative and disgusting he can be--to test
our limits. Well, I’m afraid he reached mine. At the end of the film, he gives one final twist to
the story, one final jab to our minds and guts, and for me it was one too many.
Of course, that’s not to say I didn’t appreciate and admire what he was doing. I admit, he
is really clever, and so is this movie. The problem is, it’s so clever, and so aware of its own
cleverness, that it gets annoying.
The film is, as you may have guessed, set in the near future. Not much else about the
setting is clear; there are mutated animals running around, which seems to suggest the standard
sci-fi nuclear disaster, but there are none of the other typical signs of a post-apocalyptic
environment. And, to tell the truth, by the end of the film Cronenberg will have you so turned
around that most of your ideas about the setting and characters will be completely meaningless.
Regardless, this is the way the story begins: Famous game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer
Jason Leigh of Dolores Claiborne and Single White Female), who is inexplicably named after a
prescription allergy medicine, has just developed eXistenZ, the newest and most realistic of
virtual reality games. In the opening of the film, she is testing out her new game when an
attempt is made on her life by a member of the Realists, a group of extremists who are violently
opposed to Geller’s false game worlds. Ted Pikul (Jude Law of Midnight in the Garden of Good
and Evil and Gattaca), an employee at Geller’s game company, helps her escape from the
would-be assassin and joins her in her attempts to save her game system (and, of course, herself)
from Realists and competing game companies. Along the way, Pikul and Geller meet gas station
attendant and game fan Gas (Willem Dafoe of The English Patient and Affliction), and another
employee of the game company named Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm, who’s acted in many great
films, including The Sweet Hereafter and a recent TV movie production of King Lear).
Law is especially likable, and Leigh achieves just the right amount of
untrustworthiness--we’re never quite sure if she’s really what she appears to be. This is, of
course, a recurring theme in the movie. As the story progresses, apparently helpful, friendly
people reveal themselves to be double agents, spies, assassins, or mere game characters. And
layers of existence continue to peal back and cover over each other: we start out in reality, then
we enter a game, then in the game we enter another game, then we’re out of the game, but are
we?, and so on.
As I said before, the film is calculated not only to make our heads spin, but also to make
our guts whirl. There’s lots of animal dissecting, lots of guts and blood, and more than one
character is killed in a violent and gruesome way. As for the sexual aspects of the film, all the
accessories and procedures connected with the game eXistenZ have sexual connotations. The
game pods are fleshy, organic Nintendo control pads shaped rather like sexual organs. They
connect, by way of a cable that looks rather like an umbilical cord, into a game port that is drilled
into each player’s spine. Being fitted with a port is compared to getting one’s ear pierced, but it
looks a lot more like anal sex: Pikul bends over a chair while Gas prepares to jam a long metal
object into his lower back. After being fitted with a port, characters prepare to be plugged in by
having their ports lubricated with Vaseline or spit, while their game partners toss out comments
like, "you’re too tight." Once the cord goes in, the character reacts with a sigh of pleasure, or is
berated for having ruined the experience by panicking. This is just another way that Cronenberg
is having fun with you, another element that he tweaks so that it seems like something else.
eXistenZ examines in detail the boundaries between artifice and reality, the layers of
fakery that reality and film are built out of. These are, after all, only actors we’re watching,
performing in a made-up story that merely looks realistic thanks to many expensive camera
tricks and special effects. Cronenberg is wittily pointing out, while chuckling behind his hand,
that this film itself is like a highly realistic game. The problem is, his pointing and chuckling get
intrusive and annoying. Near the end of the film, you’ve had the rug pulled out from under your
feet so many times, you just don’t want to get up again. And by that time, there’s nothing left for
you to get up for, anyway. The characters, the setting and the story have all changed. You have
nothing to hold onto, no one to sympathize with. There’s only this cold hand manipulating you.
eXistenZ is clever, and Cronenberg’s point about reality and artifice is well taken. But where’s
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