Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm
Duration: 98 min
BBFC Certification: 15
In the late ‘90s, virtual reality was introduced to the public and we were told that it would forever change the way humans would interact with their environment. It didn’t – the hardware was ridiculously expensive and the software wasn’t exactly immersive or realistic (we’re talking about the blocky graphics of the time, à la Tomb Raider). That said, Hollywood were keen to jump on to this new fad and produced some interesting sci-fi thrillers like Strange Days, The Matrix and The Lawnmower Man. And in 1999, being one to never shy away from the subject of man’s relationship with technology, writer/director David Cronenberg released eXistenZ, a kind of spiritual sequel to his 1983 masterpiece, Videodrome.
The film opens in an old church, where Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the designer of a new virtual reality game called eXistenZ. The game is to be tested on 12 volunteers, by plugging metaflesh game pods (basically game consoles that are made from organic material that pulsates and throbs) into the bio ports located in their lower backs. Shortly into the game, a member of the audience jumps up, shouts “Death to the demoness, Allegra Geller”, produces a gun made from flesh and bone and shoots her in the shoulder.
She is resuced by Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a marketing trainee for the company that Allegra works for and they go on the run from terrorists, and possibly a rival games company. Holing up in a motel in the middle of nowhere, Allegra discovers that her game pod, containing the only copy of eXistenZ, has been damaged. She needs Ted to enter the game with her, but discovers that he doesn’t possess a bio port. Needing to find someone who can install one discreetly, they go to a corner gas station owned by mechanic Willem Dafoe, who runs a black market bio port installation service. After the installation, the pair then go to hide out with a scientist (Ian Holm) in an abandoned ski resort.
Upon entering the game, the virtual reality world appears to be just mundane as the real world, with much of the action taking place in a rundown trout farm or an equally grotty Chinese restaurant. There are touches that mark this as a Cronenberg film, like the biological monstrosities that range from creatures to weapons – little 2-headed amphibians which run around and the aforementioned gun made from flesh and bone, dripping with bile, which fires human teeth as bullets. The pulsating game pods are barely disguised breasts with nipples as buttons. Even the act of plugging into the game is overtly sexual, with Ted’s virgin bio port needing to be lubricated before the phallic end of the umbicord can be inserted.
As the film progresses, there are conspiracies and double-crosses, including confusion about what’s real and what’s not and whether our protagonists are still in the game. Unfortunately, as we reach the climax (excuse the pun), we are delivered a double twist is not as clever as Cronenberg thinks, as you can see it coming a mile off.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is on top form as Allegra, the introverted designer who would rather immerse herself in eXistenZ than face the real world, but the usually great Jude Law is poor, dialling in a rather bland performance, completely failing to generate any chemistry with Leigh. On the plus side, there are fantastic cameo performances from Willem Dafoe and Ian Holm (obviously having fun with a ludicrous Eastern European accent!).
Although a very well made film, I found eXistenZ, a bit dull and quite clichéd, certainly not up to Cronenberg’s usual standard. In 1999, the ideas may have seemed fresh and I may have enjoyed it more, but almost 20 years on it hasn’t aged well.
eXistenZ is released on dual format DVD/Blu-ray by 101 Films and includes the following extras:
The Leader: An interview with Christopher Eccleston
Commentary with Kim Newman & Ryan Lambie
Commentary with Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson
Limited Edition Booklet: Includes ‘Enemy of Reality: David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ’ by Alex Morris, and ‘Of Fabrics and Flesh: An interview with Denise Cronenberg’ by Phillip Escott.
Audio commentary by David Cronenberg
Special Effects Featurette
Backstage interviews with Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Willem Dafoe, Jim Isaac (visual effects) and David Cronenberg