eXistenZ
Rating -

Sci-Fi (US); 1999; Rated R; 97 Minutes

Cast
Jennifer Jason Leigh: Allegra Geller
Jude Law: Ted Pikul
Willem Dafoe: Gas
Ian Holm: Kiri Vinokur
Don McKellar: Yevgeny Nourish
Sarah Polley: Merle

Produced, directed and screenwritten by David Cronenberg

Review Uploaded
7/09/99

Written by DAVID KEYES

The name David Cronenberg might be simultaneously linked to Pablo Picasso's for more than one reason. Seldom does a filmmaker like this leave his audience in a whirlwind of collusion and disarray. Equivalent to Picasso, his images create uproars and praises; some people look at his work and wonder, "why is this considered art?", others look deeper than that and see something worth exploring. His films are seen by millions, and yet his talent is obscure and seldom thought of as masterful. Why that is, I presume it's because of his ideas. They puzzle viewers. Some are even frightened and appalled.

The best way to approach this conviction is to use one of his most notorious films as an example. "Crash," from three years ago, involved some of the most unattractive, frightening and intriguing themes ever explored in the cinema. It told the story of people who were fascinated (more appropriately, aroused) by car crashes, awkward sexual encounters, bizarre feelings, and shameless fetishes. As said in Roger Ebert's excellent review, "It's about the human mind, about the way we grow enslaved by the particular things that turn us on, and forgive ourselves our trespasses."

"eXistenZ," the newest film under Cronenberg's name, is one of the more calm and least-daring of his movies. It's also one of the best. Indeed, the intuition of alien or artificial intelligence fabricating societies and controlling the human race has already been inspiration for various filmmakers in the recent past (last year in "Dark City," earlier this year in "The Matrix," and most recently in "The Thirteenth Floor"). But as with those directors and their movies, Cronenberg explores the idea with his own vision; the film is not about the virtual reality game as much as it is about the people who inhabit the realms and interact with them. They made the machines, so they are to blame. The movie points the finger at these people, forcing them back into a corner, wondering what to do next.

The story: computer programmer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has masterminded "eXistenZ," a game that draws you into a fabricated world without knowing that you have left your own (the process involving being hooked up to "fleshpods" from the base of your spine). Indeed, her creation looks like a real world, dwelled in by real humans. Yet this is not the case, because, examined closely, there are differences in this place from ours. The environments feel like they're alive, are under-lit, creepy, quiet, and flooded with tense feelings. Throughout the movie, the camera follows these characters around in territories that are pleasing to the eye, yet awkward in feeling. It isn't hard to imagine, behind all of those breathtaking landscapes, that there is nothing but computer chips and system resources making us see these things.

The movie picks up speed right from the beginning. Ready to test her creation on the world, Allegra brings in a group of anxious individuals, who gather around her with excitement and anticipation, as if she was going to give them some sort of psychic reading. It isn't until a visitor turns out to be one of her competitors in the gaming industry when a gunshot is fired, and Allegra and her friend, Ted (Jude Law), flee from the scene.

But the test goes on. Ted unknowingly accepts Allegra's offer to try out her game, and is sucked into it after the bio port device is installed into his spine at a service station off the road. Thus he and Allegra, much to their surprise, find themselves struggling to separate themselves from the fabrication of this 'virtual world' and the consciousness of their own world. Everything gets so out of control that they seem disoriented for brief periods, as if they are unsure of what they just did was part of the game or part of their own lives. It is with these intents that the movie progresses extensively through the mazes and puzzles with a touch of knowledge. The director knows where these characters are going, and knows how they are going to get there.

Will people have trouble with this film as they do with other Cronenberg projects? Probably not. Audiences are slowly beginning to catch on to this idea of humans being dwarfed by computers and virtual realities. "eXistenZ" will boost their faith in the idea because it's not simply the same old idea. It's one with a new approach, one that looks at the people who make these games, and traps them in worlds that they have made, but have gone out of control. With this movie, Cronenberg does not let us down (except in the end, when he seems to be asking us more questions than we can handle). His characters remain focused on their situations, and yet seem detached from understanding the complexity of the places they enter. I guess it is natural for Cronenberg to set the movie farther into the future, simply because the technology at this time does not help support his vision. By setting the film in the present, he can not make you believe that being hooked up to "fleshpods" will take you into the world of "eXistenZ," nor could he make you believe that virtual reality can mix in with physical reality.

The idea that virtual society can overtake natural reality is linked here to the millennium belief that "the earth shall end." As with his other films, Cronenberg tackles the hardest route to prove his point, in which technology has taken from us the world as we once knew it to be. He views these beliefs down to the bare core with extreme violence, blood, gore, and lots of sexual content. The "R" rating is deserved, as is the "NC-17" for the extreme shallowness of "Crash." But "eXistenZ" is not "Crash." The latter film suggests that we are all human beings who take risks and get away with them for our own bizarre pleasure. "eXistenZ" forces us to examine the fabric of our medium, and ponder, in deep thought, if the world as we see it has already died. Of course, the question seems to have already been answered.


1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org. Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
 
 
           
     
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