In 1999, after a decade or more of intense drama and literary adaptations, David Cronenberg returned to territory his fans thought he'd abandoned. eXistenZ is a gloopy sci-fi thriller in the Scanners or Videodrome mould – it's certainly not first-rate Cronenberg, but proves an entertaining, reassuringly bizarre romp nevertheless.
Sometime in the future – or perhaps an alternate present – games are no longer played on video screens but in the minds of consumers. Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the world's leading designer and is about to release her latest creation – eXistenZ. But when a terrorist tries to kill her at the first demonstration, she is forced to flee with PR man Ted Pikul (Jude Law). Worried that her 'game pod' might be damaged, Geller talks Pikul into entering the world of eXistenZ with her to test her creation.
eXistenZ touches on many of the themes that have preoccupied Cronenberg throughout his career – different levels of reality, technology converging with flesh – but here he does it with a lightness of touch that almost suggests he's spoofing himself. It's certainly his funniest film, with quirky dialogue, exaggerated performances and some amusing visual gags, and it all makes a lot more sense the second time round since many of the more peculiar touches are explained by a climatic twist.
Allegra Geller's game pod is in fact a pulsating, fleshy blob with an attached 'umbi-cord' that plugs straight into a small hole – or bioport – at the base of the player's spine. The world that Geller and Pikul enter is one that looks like ours except they are now on a mission that unfolds as they interact with the individuals within it – or as Geller says: "You have to play the game to find out why you're playing the game". And as they play, finding themselves in a strange conspiracy, Geller begins to suspect something is wrong with her creation.
Cronenberg populates this strange world – both in and out of the game, and by the end it's hard to tell which is which – with an array of equally unusual characters. Ian Holm sports a ridiculous German accent (again, explained later on in the film) as Kiri Vinokur, a game pod engineer, while Willem Dafoe plays a petrol station attendant who gives game-virgin Pikul his first bioport. Elsewhere, Don McKellar and creepy Cronenberg regular Robert A. Silverman are 'contacts' within the game, and Christopher Eccleston – with another crazy accent, this time Bronx – is a games company employee. The two leads have a playful chemistry between them, and Leigh in particular shines as the sexy yet sardonic design genius.
eXistenZ was released within weeks of The Matrix, another film about a naive man forced to confront the fact that reality isn't everything it seems, but the films couldn't be more different. For a sci-fi flick about virtual reality, eXistenZ is almost entirely free of CGI – there's no flashy 'transitions' between the real world and the game, no computers and video screens, in fact no space-age gadgetry at all. The different levels of the game are realised in subtle ways – slight changes in clothing, dialogue and behaviour, and Cronenberg films in a disorientating manner, full of strange angles and seemingly random cutaways to incidental details.
Which isn't to say there are no effects at all– aside from the game pods, Cronenberg wheels on two-headed lizards, disgusting mutant amphibians, moist orifices and best of all, the 'gristle gun', a weapon made entirely from flesh and bone that shoots teeth. And unsurprisingly, the film strong in sexual imagery too. There's little conventional sexuality and certainly no nudity, but Cronenberg squeezes every metaphorical drop out of the concept of plugging a fleshy cord into your back. Pikul in particular is resistant to the whole idea: "I have this phobia about having my body penetrated. Surgically."
eXistenZ certainly divided critics and for all its invention, the film does run out of steam in the last third. The premise is strong, but Cronenberg is unsure of where to take it, instead settling for a final twist is neither that clever nor all that surprising. Compared to the searing, controversial Crash two years earlier, eXistenZ is positively lightweight – perhaps Cronenberg wanted to work in more playful, less challenging territory, or simply wanted to get back his genre roots. Either way, and despite the flaws, this is still an enjoyable yarn from a director who never insults his audience, even when he's bewildering them. With moody music from long-time composer Howard Shore.
Highly regarded Canadian writer/director who frequently combines intellectual concerns with genre subjects. Began directing in the late-70s with a series of gruesome but socially aware horror thrillers, such as Shivers, Rabid and The Brood. 1981's Scanners was Cronenberg's commercial breakthrough, and if the hallucinatory Videodrome was box office flop, it remains one of the finest films of his career. The sombre Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone and the hugely successful remake of The Fly followed.
The disturbing Dead Ringers (1988) was a watershed film, based for the first time entirely in reality and featuring a career-best performance from Jeremy Irons. The 1990s saw Cronenberg in uncompromising form, adapting a pair of "unfilmable" modern classics - Burrough's Naked Lunch and Ballard's Crash - in typically idiosyncratic style. M. Butterfly was something of a misfire, but eXistenZ surprised many by being fast-moving and funny, while 2002's powerful Spider saw Cronenberg at his most art-house.