Canada (Can/UK) 1999 : David CRONENBERG : 97 mins
“I’m very . worried . about my body,” says Ted Pikul (Jude Law) during eXistenZ – a line that distils Cronenberg’s ongoing fascination with unstable human corporeality into a single sentence, much as the film itself neatly condenses his career into 97 economic minutes. It’s a process that skirts close to self-parody on occasion – either dangerously or amusingly close, depending on your perspective. But either way, this is a film which, in refreshingly stark contrast to 1999’s much more overblown ‘what is reality’ opus The Matrix, does not take itself especially seriously. Howard Shore’s restrained but overwhelmingly doomy score provides the perfect straight-faced ironic counterpoint for what turn out to be some very quirky, larky shenanigans.
It’s possible, of course, to take eXistenZ at face value – as the summary on BBC’s Ceefax teletext service accompanying a 2003 screening of the film proves: “A virtual reality game transports its players to a harrowing world of illusion. Sci-fi horror with Jude Law.” And of course there indeed are moments of ‘sci-fi horror’ along the way: weird mutated creatures; blood spraying out of severed umbilical cords; a man messily shot in the face with a bizarre organic ‘gun’ made of bone and gristle. But there are many more moments of comedy during which Cronenberg (in his first solo original script since 1982’s Videodrome) tips us the wink that he isn’t actually the same breed of tech-nerd as his characters – even the title, with its prissily precise orthography and portentous philosophical import, emerges as rather more satirical in intent than we initially expect.
Pikul is a security operative employed by Antenna, a shadowy corporation that dominates a near-future world where complex virtual-reality games transport the ‘players’ into totally convincing alternate realities. He’s hired to protect star game-designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) during a private event in which invited game aficionados are to experience her’s latest creation, eXistenZ. But when a member of the anti-gaming ‘realist’ faction tries to assassinate the ‘demoness’ designer, Geller and Pikul go on the run – and find soon themselves going deeper and deeper into other, more mysterious ‘games’. Or do they..?
Many film-makers would use the basic premise as a launchpad for a mind-bending, megabudget exploration of the possibilities inherent in virtual-reality technologies – but Cronenberg doesn’t seem to be especially interested in the games as such, or even in the standard-issue Hollywood idea of what science fiction should be. As Allegra and Ted penetrate the various levels, they find themselves in thoroughly dingy, enclosed, workaday environments – a game shop, a ski cabin, a Chinese restaurant, an unhygienic ‘trout farm’. They also discover that each new game tends to be about finding, developing, or destroying yet another new game, and so on. The games are, deliberately, high-tech dead-end McGuffins, and the point is not to discover some hidden answer at the centre of all the layers (critics writing about the film invariably evoke ‘Chinese boxes’, though Russian dolls might be closer to the mark), but simply to progress further and further into a self-perpetuating maze.
If anything, eXistenZ seems to suggest that Cronenberg himself has a rather dim view of the hermetic, delusional ‘gaming’ universe – and also, perhaps, of the film-making process which is presented as its direct counterpart. The dialogue repeatedly emphasises the links between ‘eXistenz’ the game and eXistenZ the film – the various ‘players’ often critique their ‘game characters’, as when Ian Holm (speaking in his own English tones) complains that his game-character’s accent was so thick as to be almost indecipherable – thus repeating what the audience themselves will have been thinking when they encountered his other persona earlier on.
‘eXistenZ’ is very much an unfinished, imperfect product – as is ‘transCendenZ’, revealed as the ‘real’ game in one of the many last-reel twists (a ‘flaw’ which the players themselves mention when asked for their critiques). The fact that everything we’re seeing is some kind of construct means, of course, that Cronenberg can get away with pretty much anything he likes – if some dialogue is silly (“You murdered my game!!!” yelps Geller), some plot developments are breezily absurd (as when guns are hidden under a shaggy dog’s fur), or if the special effects are decidedly ropey (as when the man is shot with the organic gun), then these are marks against ‘eXistenZ’ and/or ‘transCendenZ’, not eXistenZ.
But while such deliriously loopy moments make it hard to take eXistenZ as seriously as, say, David Fincher’s more thoroughly pessimistic and dystopian The Game (territory to which it briefly aspires when Geller tells Pikul that characters in the eXistenZ world have “just enough free will to make things interesting”), they do give the film a ragged, small-scale charm that sets it apart from just about all of cinema’s other, much more po-faced explorations of this terrain. Philip K Dick – to whom Cronenberg nods by featuring a breakfast cereal named after Dick character Perky Pat – would have lapped it up.
10th May, 2003
(seen on TV, 9th May)
by Neil Young