Wednesday, May 7, 2014

eXistenZ (1999)

Title: eXistenZ (1999)

Director: David Cronenberg

Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm

eXistenZ comes to us from David Cronenberg a director who loves to swim in the waters of the philosophical, the psychosexual, the violent and the just plain horrifying. Cronenberg explores the most basic parts of human nature: violence and sex. If we look through most of Cronenberg’s films, they all deal with many of these same themes. Take for example The Fly (1986); a very sexual film about a scientist who embraces his aggressive side once he starts turning into the monstrous Fly; everything ends rather violently on that one. The Brood (1979) is about a woman who externalizes all her worst feelings by giving birth to these violent, murderous little kids. Scanners (1981) is all about the power of the mind! And the abuse of that power! Again, on Scanners humans embrace their violent side, the end result is a confrontation between two powerful Scanners and the end result is not a happy one. A History of Violence (2005), well, the title says it all, but again, a very violent and sexual film.

Videodrome (1983) is a good example as well; aside from the themes Cronenberg usually addresses in his films, Videodrome is a film that explores the media and humanities obsession with it. Why do we love television so much? Why are we so obsessed with what we see? “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye” Cronenberg goes on to explore our obsession with all the sex and violence shown on television. It seems Cronenberg is making a case for humanity; as if he wants us to live in the real world rather than spending our time sitting in front of a television, obsessed with porn and graphic violence. The image of a television gobbling up James Woods lets us know exactly what Cronenberg was concerned with while making Videodrome; television is consuming us! It’s no wonder that at some point a character yells “death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!”  It’s as if Cronenberg’s characters had a personal battle against television screens, a battle between freedom of the mind vs. a mind enslaved by television programming; a battle that I’m sad to say humanity has lost. Many take for granted whatever is spewed out of the television screen.

What eXistenZ does is play with these themes presented in Videodrome, but from the point of view of video games. Same as television, videogames offer an escape. In fact, if we get right down to it, video games are a much more immersive experience. You essentially get to live a ‘second life’; you control an alter ego through imaginary worlds. In these games you live or die by the decisions you make, in this way, videogames serve as an allegory for real life. You make the right choices; you just might make it to the end. Modern society is just as obsessed with videogames because they offer an escape not unlike the virtual reality worlds that appear in films like Johnny Mnemonic (1995) or The Matrix (1999). You plug yourself in and you’re in another world for hours on end if you like. But, at what point does the videogame world become more interesting than the real world?

In eXistenZ we meet Allegra Geller, a video game programmer who is trying out her new game with a test audience, just to see how they like it and to work out any kinks. In a way, eXistenZ reminded me of Total Recall (1989) because in eXistenZ, once you plug into the virtual reality world of the game, things start to get bat shit insane, which of course is where the fun starts. The thing about eXistenZ is that same as as in Videodrome, there’s people out there fighting to disconnect humans from the fakeness of the game world, fighting for humans to live out their real lives instead of their virtual ones. So we have these guerilla groups who are out to kill videogame programmers, which is what the film is mostly about. Allegra Geller and her bodyguard Ted Pikul running from these anti-gaming terrorist organizations.

Many things make this one extremely watchable, first of all is that feeling of ‘what the hell is going on here’ you’ll feel throughout the whole film. The feeling that you know something’s wrong, but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. Are we in the game? Or are we in the real world? Then we have Willem Defoe playing a character called ‘Gas’; really freaky type of character. Then there’s the body horror element, in the form of the actual gaming system. The best way I can describe it is imagine if your gaming system was a living being that you had to take care of and that you plug directly into your spinal cord whenever you want to play? Like in many Cronenberg films, there’s some really gory scenes, overall, exactly the type of thing you’d expect from Cronenberg. So yeah, this is one of those movies with a real weird vibe to it, similar in someways to Cronenberg’s own Videodrome and films like Tron (1982) or The Matrix (1999), where most of the film takes place in a virtual reality world; only this virtual reality world comes from the twisted mind of David Cronenberg, which is a-okay in my book.  

Rating: 4 out of 5


Elwood Jones said...

I've adored this film from the first time I watched it, as its the sort of movie you just want to crawl inside to explore further, while equally fun to see Cronenberg giving what could be seen as his version of the matrix from the scenes like the pod factory through to the lunchtime special which become the bio-pistol complete with teeth ammunition.
Its just such a shame they marked this film as an action thriller rather than a curiosity to let wash over you like "The Cell"

Tylerandjack said...

Not seen this one in years, but I was a fan when I first caught it (all of Cronenberg's movies tend to work for me).
Nice review.

Franco Macabro said...

Elwood: I hear ya about studio marketing, this film is not action at's more of a psychological thriller. But you know studios will do anything to sell a movie, especially when they think it wont sell. For example, that quote on the cover about this movie making The Matrix look like childsplay is a bit exagerated because while both films do have similarities, especially when the virtual world is concerned, they are both very different films. Tonally they are nothing alike! The Matrix is an action sci-fi, while eXistenZ is much more pshychological film that slowly creeps under your skin.

Kevin: Me too, it's weirdness grabbed me from the get go.


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