“You have to play the game to find out why you’re playing the game.” – Allegra
David Cronenberg’s transcendental masterpiece? I say so. eXistenz (1999), one of the great mindbenders of our time, constructs an alternate universe parallel to ours that is numbed by videogame addiction. The players use MetaFlesh game-pods that use bioports to plug into their spines. In the latest game, Jennifer Jason Leigh is highly lauded game designer Allegra Geller and Jude Law is reluctant PR nerd Ted Pikul. “I have this phobia about having my body penetrated surgically,” he concerns. His nervous system is uncooperative when finally jacked-in. Brace yourself. This is science-fiction defiant of conventional formulas.
Following an opening introduction held at a vacant church, Allegra syncs up with a dozen other gamers to test out a brand new video game yet to hit the market. Each player is connected to the MetaFlesh game pod – an organic system shaped amphibiously with temporal parts that are comparably female – with an umbilical cord that plugs into a bioport that has been surgically added to the human spine. Suggestively, this is a widespread common practice in future Earth.
Jacked-in, the lot of participants lose consciousness as they engage in the interactive role-playing game (RPG). Then a real-threat interruption: Allegra is lethally fired at by a would-be assassin. The bullets fired at her are human teeth. Observes Allegra: “This one has a cavity.” Explains Ted: “That thing was designed to get past any kind of metal or synthetics detector.” The two of them go on the run together. Their lives might be of secondary importance. They run with their $38 million dollar virtual reality game product. Allegra needs to engage with a friendly player to ensure it is not broken and will still operate. The film engages a new level of meta at this point.
The first ally appears to be an attendant named Gas (Willem Dafoe), who claims that his fill-up station is his business “in only the most pathetic level of reality.” Further escapades take them to a Trout Farm where an assembly line manufactures Meta-Flesh and a very abnormal Chinese Restaurant (a cut-out advertisement prior to entering says, “Will You Make It Out Alive?”). The special plate of the day appears to be green, gooey amphibious tripe.
“eXistenZ” is disgusting, and it should be. I’ve often noted that most women can’t stand it because of its grotesqueness. So be it, Cronenberg’s art in this occasion can be a guy thing. Boys and men are the ones more susceptible to playing video games for hours, we can admit this. At what costs do we play until we lose our physical relationship with the real world? Emotional, physical and spiritual atrophy comes with long hours lost spent playing. Ted aversively, if singularly, complains that there is psychosis involved with over-play. Allegra gently reassures that his nervous system is simply engaging with the game architecture. Play endlessly and get used to it. That’s what designers like Allegra say. Psychologists would warn of the dangers of desensitization.
Nobody is fully awake in the movie. Everybody is hooked-up, therefore in a trance from over-playing. Consider how truly brave it is for Cronenberg to direct everything at such a minimalist tone. Behavior is schizoid, conscientiousness is ephemeral – these virtual games are an unalleviated drug overpowering the brain. Cronenberg’s arguably highest interest could be about the grotesque human compliance to desecrate our flesh in order to obtain mind-blowing highs, and us being willing to accept the costs. When we’re lost in video games that blur reality with fantasy, we get disconnected. The “eXistenZ” scenario is what would happen if, say, 99% of the world population got hooked. How about this: Normal business activity in the world would never get done.
The shot composition, and editing, is as masterful as anything I’ve ever seen during the final scenes. It’s almost, in a hypnotic and hard-nosed way with those medium shots of disoriented players faces, Kubrickian. The bombastic outbursts by our protagonists is a wild freak-out, it chills the bones. Look for, as well as consider, Law’s subsequent darting, quizzical eyes as Ted. He is in disbelief at just how disengaged everyone else is. With such small, but telling cinematic details, Cronenberg’s film is compellingly probing in figuring out the motor behind human and dehumanized nuances.
Spellbinding from first scene to last, why is this Cronenberg tour de force less famous than it should be? It was released just weeks after “The Matrix” and suffered for it. “eXistenZ” is more cerebral, and perhaps esoteric. You just found your newest favorite weird movie if you haven’t seen it yet. Also with Sarah Polley, Callum Keith Rennie, Ian Holm and Christopher Eccleston. Catch these other Cronenberg films if you have not already: “The Brood” (1979); “The Dead Zone” (1983), “The Fly” (1986), “Dead Ringers” (1988); “Crash” (1996); “Spider” (2002).
97 Minutes. Rated R.
Film Cousins: “Videodrome” (1983); “Total Recall” (1990); “Virtuosity” (1995); “The Matrix” (1999).