This essay on David Cronenberg's eXistenZ was written by former WUD Film committee member Victor Alicea ('14). A 35mm print of eXistenZ will screen on Thursday, November 20, 7 p.m., at the Chazen Museum of Art.
eXistenZ is one of the most under-appreciated films of the last twenty years. Despite the fact that it received some acclaim at the time, including a Silver Bear at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival for an outstanding artistic contribution it still never received much attention (it was overshadowed by another 1999 virtual reality film, The Matrix). eXistenZ, and that is in fact how it is spelled, is one of Cronenberg’s finest films. (I would only rank Videodrome and maaaybe Dead Ringers above it).
The basics of the story: a virtual reality game designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose scenes in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut were cut when she could not do reshoots because of eXistenZ), is attacked by a ‘realist’ (anti-game terrorists) during a public trial of her new game. She is forced to go on the run with marketing intern Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and enter her own virtual-reality game, which also involves dealings with realist terrorists and virtual reality games. That plot description would normally be a fairly unremarkable postmodern techno-thriller, but David Cronenberg turns it into something special; investigating our perceptions of reality, technology, and how they affect each other.
The first thing to note about the film is the trademark Cronenbergian biotechnology. Instead of some normal metal technology, in eXistenZ people enter their virtual realities through ‘gamepods,’ weird fleshy lumps (which we later learn are possibly made out of animal organs harvested in factories) that people plug into ‘bioports’ in their lower spine. Instead of normal guns, people use organic guns that shoot human teeth. This biotechnology is creepy, weird, gross and wonderful.
The animal organs factory also brings up some pretty interesting thematics. It's easy for us to think of our technology as something different to us, a tool made of wiring and plastic. Cronenberg forces us to consider the nature of our technology. The idea of exploiting animal organs to create game parts is pretty horrific and disgusting, but how far removed is it from the exploitation of minerals to create new phones without considering environmental damage? Early on in the film, Leigh's character comments on how a two-headed mutant amphibian is a “sign of the times,” this quote makes this parallel pretty clear. Additionally, this biotechnology made me consider how integral technology has become to our basic functioning, echoing a theme from Cronenberg's masterpiece Videodrome.
Videodrome is a good comparison; eXistenZ feels a lot like a followup, continuing some of the themes while also doing its own thing. Beyond the aforementioned relationship between technology and our bodies, they also both evoke themes about our relationship to media. Long story short, Videodrome is about how many people experience the world through TV: one character says “The television is the retina of the mind's eye.” Videodrome is the world as seen from the incredibly subjective (or is it?) perspective of someone going crazy. eXistenz is more like a Philip K. Dick novel, an examination of an artificially created subjective world with a paranoid streak. As a matter of fact, the fast food restaurant Pikul and Allegra go to is named Perky Pat’s, a reference to one of Dick’s best novels, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. In that book people take special drugs called Can-D and Chew-Z to escape from their grim, dystopian reality to subjective virtual worlds.
One of my favorite things about eXistenZ is how it really understands why videogames are interesting. Many characters mention about how games allow them to escape from “the most pathetic level of reality” to have new experiences. These experiences are not devalued by the movie for being unreal, in fact the people who are against the idea of games and virtual reality (the realists) are shown as terrorists. This idea reminds me of how one of my friends once described why he likes video games: “one of my favorite things about video games is getting the memories of a video game confused with real memories.”
eXistenZ is one of the very few movies that really “understands” videogames at all, the only others I could think of are Wreck-It Ralph, Sans Soleil and the recent Edge of Tomorrow (anyone who has played Dark Souls understands the journey of self-improvement through failure Tom Cruise takes in that film). Other movies that take on games as a subject seem like the equivalent of parents complaining about rock & roll music: games are this new thing that they don't understand and don't like.
One of my favorite little things about eXistenZ is that gets a lot of the “texture” of games correct. It gets the “rhythm” of games correctly, particularly the ones of the late 90s. The actors give some incredibly strange performances, but to me they are perfect (and strangely hilarious). A lot of scenes and plot developments are also very reminiscent of common tropes in games. Cronenberg’s film feels less like a judgmental attack and much more like someone poking fun at something they also love.