“I don’t like it here. I don’t know what’s going on. We’re both stumbling around together in this unformed world whose rules and objectives are largely unknown – seemingly indecipherable, or even possibly nonexistent – always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don’t understand… It sounds like a game that’s not gonna be easy to market,” opines Jude Law’s character Ted Pikul in eXistenZ, David Cronenberg’s weird little sci-fi meditation on technology and virtual reality. “But it’s a game everybody’s already playing.” responds Allegra Geller, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.
This exchange between the two titular characters hints that a more profound and universal allegory is at work in the film; one that in the eleven years since its release has become cliche and gimmicky perhaps, but few of the movies that’ve come since have dealt with the existential conundrum or the foibles of false realities with the humor or deftness of touch that Cronenberg’s movie displays.
The film was released in April of 1999 and was preceded by the mother of all virtual reality blockbusters -The Matrix, which came out only a month earlier. Perhaps this is the reason for the lack of mainstream publicity for eXistenZ, (I may be wrong here but I don’t recall hearing about the movie until it was available as a video rental) or maybe it’s because Cronenbeg’s style is so quirky and even repulsive at times. Regardless, this is a movie that warrants attention from sci-fi buffs and/or newly converted Cronenberg fans.
eXistenZ opens in what resembles an old church or some place you’d likely visit for an alcoholic’s anonymous meeting; a bland and unlikely setting for the demonstration of the latest masterpiece from “the greatest game designer in the world.” Right away Cronenberg’s counter-intuitive visual approach is apparent. Instead of some sleek, hi-tech, convention style setting we get one that’s minimal and organic, set not in a bustling city but in a rural countryside. We’re introduced to Allegra Geller, creator of what promises to be the most innovative virtual reality game/gaming system yet as she prepares to demonstrate it to an eager test group.
The doorman for the event, Ted Pikul (Jude Law) observes with curiosity as Geller selects volunteers for the demonstration. He distractedly scans entrants for recording devices as she connects each volunteer’s “game pod” to her own. These devices are constructed from a pink, fleshy material and connect to each player’s spine via a gnarled cable resembling an umbilical cord. One of the men Pikul allows to pass into the audience conceals a gun designed to bypass metal or synthetic weapons detection and which is made of what resembles chicken bones and viscera and fires -you’re gonna love this- teeth.
All hell breaks loose when the mystery man proclaims “Death to the demoness Allegra Geller!” and fires a molar into her shoulder. This is followed by a brief and awkward shootout between the assailant and two members of the audience who – we presume – are part of the event’s security. Geller’s organic game pod is mortally damaged in the event, Pikul is charged by his dying boss to get her to safety and warned to trust no one. The implication is made that Geller’s enemies may in fact be operatives from within her own gaming company, Antenna Research. Pikul and Geller retreat into the countryside, and the intrigue commences.
The duo find themselves on the run from some mysterious entity, yet Geller’s prime concern is the health of eXistenZ and her game pod which contains the only copy of the game. In order to determine it’s status she enlists Pikul to enter the game with her, which is no small feat as he has yet to be fitted with a “bio-port” which is a small, sphincter-like opening at the base of the spine where the “UmbyCord” connects the game pod to the player’s nervous system. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, Pikul has a phobia about being “surgically penetrated”) the pair locate a black market bio-port installer played by a slightly creepier than usual Willem Dafoe. As luck wood have it Gas (Dafoe) has learned of a bounty on Geller’s head and sabotages Pikul’s port (sounds perverse eh?) before the two escape yet again. They move on to locate some friendlies who assist in repairing the damaged pod and allow them to finally enter the game.
Once again Cronenberg’s understated style is in effect as Pikul and Geller slip seamlessly into the virtual world of eXistenZ. There are no slick CGI morphs or digital scrim a la The Matrix to visually announce the transition from reality to virtual reality. Instead, Cronenberg accomplishes it with simple cuts, and costume or set changes.
As Pikul and Allegra travel further into the game they learn that not only are they caught in the middle of a conflict between Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics (which is Antenna’s corporate rival) there’s also a party of violent revolutionaries known as the “Realists” to contend with. The Realists see the gaming corporations as evil entities responsible for “deforming reality” and are determined to sabotage their manufacturing operations which take place on “trout farms” and involve harvesting the organs of mutated amphibians in order to produce the organic game pods.
The trout farm sequence provides one of the more disgusting moments in the film as Pikul, after being directed by a coworker to have lunch at the chinese restaurant, is forced to eat “the special” which consists of one of those aforementioned mutated amphibian creatures. As he picks the meat from the bone he recognizes the components of that same weird tooth gun that Geller was assaulted with in the film’s opening, which he proceeds to assemble. This device of elements from the previous “reality” subtly informing the construction of the virtual world repeats itself over the course of the film. It reminds me of the dream architecture of movies like Inception or even Nightmare on Elm Street; films in which the subconscious world of dreams functions much the same way as the digital world of movies like eXistenZ and The Matrix.
The story plays itself out with more deception and double crossing and agents of the various corporate and revolutionary factions double crossing or double double crossing our heroes. It’s difficult to grasp the true nature of all the character’s motives and alliances but the resulting confusion is part of the film’s strength. In jerking us around from one revelation to another and with increasing frequency as the film climaxes, Cronenberg accomplishes his goal of exploring this idea of a false or artificial reality. And he wisely presents the question without making a heavy-handed declaration about it.
This is not a cautionary tale. Cronenberg may be hinting at some possible pitfalls in immersing ourselves in artificial worlds but, as Geller points out, we are all playing the game already; a game in which mysterious and unknown forces are affecting our fates constantly, No one has authority over this reality, and our perception of it is not always an ally. That’s why they call it “the existential problem.”
eXistenZ is currently available on netfliX instant