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 the fun?

Jim Genzano

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