1999, R, 90 min. Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Callum Keith Rennie, Don McKellar, Christopher Eccleston.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 14, 1999
No doubt about it: David Cronenberg is back to his old self. After stumbling badly with his last film, the pointless and disjointed Crash, the Canadian director has finally made a film that can be distinctly described as “a David Cronenberg film.” It's been a while. Although all his more recent films -- Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, M. Butterfly, The Fly, The Dead Zone -- contained that uniquely Cronenbergian language in which the emotional world is brought to life in terms of graphically visceral logic and detail, eXistenZ is Cronenberg's first film since Videodrome (1983) that is wholly his invention and not an adaptation of some previously existing work. Like Videodrome, eXistenZ posits the human body as both a receptacle for and generator of a shadow world of escapist fantasy and alternate reality. These are no mere metaphors for Cronenberg. Sex and horror, pleasure and death, are inextricably linked in his world. In eXistenZ, Leigh is cast as top game designer Allegra Geller, a real-life goddess to her devout fans, a demoness to partisans of the Realist Underground. As she launches the first public demonstration of her new invention, a game called eXistenZ, which is played by inserting the venous UmbyCord of the organ-like MetaFlesh game pod into the human bioport receptacle (a permanent, anus-like jack zapped into the base of the player's spine), an assassination attempt is made on her life. She flees with only a new company flack (Law) for security. The rest of the movie is an elaborate cat-and-mouse game between reality and game reality, the details of which are random and, ultimately, irrelevant. As Allegra explains at one point, “You have to play the game in order to find out why you're playing the game.” It's a little dodgy at times but everything is wrapped up clearly in the movie's epilogue. And by then you've seen such unforgettable things as the gristle gun that shoots human teeth that the details of specific narrative comings and goings are clearly subordinate to the overall experience. The timing of the release of eXistenZ on the heels of The Matrix is bound to open our eyes to the possibilities of game realities. Also, in light of the current climate of self-questioning and finger-pointing that surrounds the questions related to children and violence, eXistenZ is sure to tweak a few nerves. The movie asks questions about whether a game designer should be regarded as a great artist and whether the world's most effective game artist deserves to be punished. The assassination attempt on Allegra is referred to as a “fatwa” and the idea for the movie arose during an interview Cronenberg conducted with Salman Rushdie a few years ago while the author was still in hiding. As the story's high priestess of game design, Leigh has not turned in a performance as mischievous and alluring in quite some time. Holm and Dafoe also turn in especially amusing performances. Cronenberg also receives able assists from longtime collaborators cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, production designer Carol Spier, special effects supervisor Jim Isaac, editor Ron Sanders, and composer Howard Shore. “People are trained to accept so little but the possibilities are so great,” we're admonished early in the film. Another way of saying this is that in the game of eXistenZ it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.