Retro Review: eXistenZ

The text below the break is part of a DVD review originally published on October 28th, 1999.

Here are some updated thoughts:  Holy crap, I remember nothing about this movie.  Even re-watching the trailer sparked no memories of eXistenZ.  Nothing about the plot, characters, or if I even loved it or hated it.  Apparently from my 16 year old review I thought it was pretty decent . . . but clearly not memorable.

Reading my old review it seems that once again studios might have been having genre fisticuffs.  Within a span of two month The Matrix (March 1999), eXistenZ (April 1999), and The Thirteenth Floor (May, 1999) were released, all steeped in cyberpunk story lines.  Clearly the more zen and less weird offering won the hearts and minds of movegoers, with The Matrix becoming a classic, and eXistenZ relegated to being another bizarre David Cronenberg flick.

The funniest part of my review was making reference to Ultima Online as being some sort of amazing online, virtual experience.[divider style=”dashed” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

eXistenZ is the first 100% original David Cronenberg script since 1983.  That 1983 film was Videodrome of course, acknowledged by many (but not me) as one of the best science fiction films of that decade.  Videodrome is a blend of licentiousness and technology run amok, a paranoid tale of losing control of your mind, your body, and your decisions.  eXistenZ feels a lot like Videodrome’s older brother, back from traveling abroad and savvier for the experience.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is the brilliant but reclusive game designer Allegra Geller, who enters the film to present her new creation, eXistenZ, to a crowd of eager enthusiasts.  As complex and involved as games are today, considering the vast multi-user environments of Ultima Online and Everquest, games in this unspecified future have far surpassed those server-based dinosaurs.  Clunky PC’s and console systems have been replaced by “metaflesh” game pods, which plug into bio-ports installed in the gamer’s spine via cables that are dead-ringers for umbilical cords.  Once linked with the person’s nervous system, the game pod runs on your energy and adjusts the game environment to suit your personality, but imposing the rules and plot of the game on your actions.  Seeing this in action is bizarre to say the least. T he game pod, which already looks like some otherworldly detached bunion, begins to pulsate, cringe, and mewl as it exchanges data with it’s host.  Just as we see this occurring between Allegra and her participants, a member of the audience shouts “Death to the demoness Allegra Geller!” and shoots her.

Why she was shot, who is after her, and what will become of her $38 million project is the basis of the rest of the movie.  Saying it like that makes the film seem rather straightforward, but remember, this is a Cronenberg movie.  The gun, it turns out, got past security because it was made entirely of bone, and it’s ammunition was human teeth.  Yeah . . . Cronenberg.

[box type=”error” align=”” class=”” width=””]eXistenZ PosterDuring the first closed-door demonstration of an amazing new virtual reality game — called eXistenZ — the system’s brilliant designer, Allegra Geller, is violently attacked by a crazed assassin intent on killer her and destroying her creation.  Forced to flee into hiding, Allegra enlists a young assistant to help her in testing the damaged system . . . by convincing him to join her inside eXistenZ.  The action then explodes as their world’s real-life dangers begin to merge with the fantasy of the game.

Director:  David Cronenberg
Starring:  Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm
Genre:  Science Fiction/Cyberpunk
Media:  Film, 97 minutes
Rating: R
Budget: $15 million
Box Office: $2.8 million
Year: April 23, 1999
3 out of 5 stars[/box]

On the run with junior marketing rep Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a wounded Allegra frets about her game pod, damaged in the firefight and the repository of the only version of the eXistenZ game system.  Has she not heard of backups?  She convinces Pikul to get a bio-port installed, so she can be sure that the pod still works. “It just doesn’t seem right, it’s a hole that opens up into your body!” he says. “Do you know how ridiculous you sound?” Allegra counters, opening her mouth wide and waggling her tongue.  Eluding, of course, that our mouth is an open hole in our body used to transfer data.  Bizarre point taken I guess.

It’s the scenes after Ted and Allegra go inside eXistenZ that really move the film.  Soon, the more things go wrong and the more they (and therefore, us) realize that the structure of the game requires them to do things they would never do in real life, and the more we realize how easy that can be used as an excuse to do them.  For all the comments of “Don’t worry, it’s only a game”, and “Don’t fight it”, there are just as many statements of “Who’s fighting it?” and “That must be my game character coming out.”  Real world social restrictions melt away.  Morals and mores begin to evaporate.

This attitude becomes dangerous when the lines between what is real and what is eXistenZ begin to bleed together.  The characters don’t know what is real anymore, and neither do we.  Down the rabbit hole.

The production value of the film is very efficient.  The sets are minimalist at best, and all the action of every scene takes place in the immediate foreground, giving the film a very flat, 2D appearance.  My money says this was intentional; the movie is so grounded in the notion that these characters are experiencing a strange, vast, virtual world, that we must remember that at least for now, their world is not our world.  For us, monitors and TV screens will have to do.  The budget was spent mostly on unnamable things that bleed, shriek, ooze, and spew viscous liquid.   Yeah . . . Cronenberg.

Happily, he’s up to his old tricks again.  eXistenZ revels in coy subtext, rife with sexual metaphors.  People are constantly lubricating this and inserting that, commenting on how the bio-port is “excited” and “needs action” as the hole is probed by a licked finger.  I can picture the cocked eyebrows of old farts at the MPAA ratings board, eyes darting back and forth at each other as they wring their hands, none wanting to admit that they got the joke.

For all the mounting tension, for all the innuendo, for all the frantic questions of Is It Live or Is It eXistenZ?, the movie delivers on climax. Cronenberg proves again to be a master of pushing in our face those things that make us uncomfortable, but in the end rewards us for our fortitude.

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Note:   I’m revisiting and re-posting many older articles (almost 200) I’ve written (or contributed to) over the years, either for my own purposes or as contributions to other sites now long digitally decayed and dormant.  These reviews/articles will appear in their nearly raw, unaltered form, with a few updated thoughts at the beginning of each.

Words © 2015-2020, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
Images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).

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