Video Vault: EXISTENZ
This week Video Vault plugs in to David Cronenberg‘s eXistenZ (1999). Despite garnering a slew of film festival nominations and awards, I think I know one other person who has seen this Inception-y romp. Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ian Holm, and Willem Dafoe star in the reality jumping horror thriller. Sarah Polley drops in for a hot second too.
The film begins at a focus group for “the greatest game designer in the world” Allegra Gellar’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) latest title “eXistenZ”. Her virtual reality system uses an organic game port, called a “game pod”, that plugs directly in to a player via a disgusting “bio-port” that is installed in their spine. An unholy bond is formed between player and pod (see above). When an assassination attempt is made on Allegra during the focus group, she narrowly escapes the chaos with the help of marketing intern Ted Pikul (Jude Law). Afraid that her game port (a game port that holds the only copy of eXistenZ) has been damaged due to the unprepared disconnect during the assassination attempt, Allegra concludes that she must test her game with someone she can trust. Ted, the marketing intern, is the only choice. Unfortunately, he has remained bio-port free due to his fear of “surgical penetration.” After convincing the reluctant Ted to have one installed by a black marketeer (Willem Dafoe), they enter the world of eXistenZ to save the game (and themselves!). The distinction between allies and enemies blurs as the pair twists their way through multiple nested realities.
EXistenZ is in every sense a classic Cronenberg film. Man vs. technology is the main theme and once again we have the blending of organic and electronic that was so literally manifested in Videodrome. This movie definitely does not disappoint when it comes to delivering that disturbing Cronenbergian imagery. Gross/moist physical effects, belivable-but-not-quite-yet-realizable technological innovations, and familiar yet dream-like settings are in full effect. The generous use of viscerally off-putting atmosphere is prevalent too. What I find most unique and impressive about the film is the use of video game characteristics and cliches to effectively bring the alternate reality world to life. If I jumped in to The Legend of Zelda and started talking with citizens of Hyrule Castle Town, this is pretty close to what I would imagine it would actually be like.
Leigh makes a great Cronenberg heroine: smart, sexy, knows what’s gotta be done, and nonchalant about it all. No complaints from me for the rest of the performances either. An engaging premise and onslaught of Cronenberg creepy-weirdness make it a fun VHS discovery. The film definitely has its flaws though. Like most stories dealing with multiple realities things get muddled. The origin reality is unclear, but that is the point. When video game tech gets so realistic that we cannot tell the real from the virtual, how do we know when we have left the game and why would we want to? What is reality at that point?