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eXistenZ, written and directed by David Cronenberg, 1999, 100 min.

Cronenberg's film eXistenz uses intriguing ideas (and some heavy theory and philosophy, if you listen to Cronenberg's commentary track on the DVD), but the movie is creaky in execution, not always entertaining to watch, and more of a mind trick than an actual movie. As hard as Cronenberg tries, the movie never quite gels into an interesting whole. Take the title. The movie is about a world of game developers in the future, and the premiere game of the time, eXistenZ. The goofy orthography and capitalization is intended to critique the low-brow pop culture origins of most computer games, but the movie has the same title. Cronenberg is too canny to make the movie anything but a seamlessly integrated version of what it depicts, but eXistenZ doesn't walk quite a fine enough line. We find some promising elements about virtual reality, morality, and trust among friends, but assembled from bits and pieces of junk culture. Cronenberg almost pulls it off, but not quite. Cronenberg fans will like grosser aspects of the movie, such as the strange orifices and the amount of goopy, organic technology, but eXistenZ will be mostly lost on the general audience.

A famous game designer, Allegra Gellar, is about to demonstrate her new game when she has to flee the scene due to an assassination attempt. A PR person by name of Ted Pikul flees with her, and for some reason, Allegra decides to trust him. She tries to get Ted into the game world, which is malfunctioning, but this involves a bio-port, a necessary jack in the base of the spine which Ted does not have. She takes him to the kind of place where you do not want to get delicate spinal cord related surgery -- the Country Gas Station. Once Ted is jacked, they enter the game world, and things get even weirder and dripping with more goo. Fish get gutted, and bizarre organs get harvested. Ted eats a really disgusting meal and events turn violent. The ending is a letdown of the worst kind, a surprise that fails to surprise: Allegra and Ted try to get out of the game world, through violent means and otherwise, and the layers of the onion keep peeling back. Cronenberg leaves us with the feeling that the onion layers have not stopped. The attempted ambiguity of the climax only leaves us laughing, due to the predictability of the moment.

The title's cheesiness is meant to portray something about the world of computer games, and the same defence could be propped up for the characters. For a good portion of the film, the actors are portraying characters who are one step further removed from reality as game characters. Cardboard cutouts indeed! Cronenberg is satirizing the lack of depth in most computer game characters. Unfortunately, the movie itself is then made out of worthless and uninteresting people, which might be fine if eXistenZ succeeeded as a satire. It does not, and so we get very shallow roles for the two main characters and everyone else fades into the backdrop completely.

The movie makes at least one reference to Philip K. Dick (and Cronenberg mentions in the commentary track that he wanted to dedicate the movie to Dick). At one point, Allegra and Ted are hiding out in a hotel, and the camera pans to an order of fries on the night table -- from the Perky Pat franchise of fast food restaurants! A nice nod to the famous PKD story, "The Days of Perky Pat," an amusing and disturbing story about consumerism. The story is told in Dick's typical style of the low-brow celebration of junk, and it's interesting to note here that Dick had just as many hits as misses. Alert fans of these kinds of undependable-reality stories will be tipped off early on to what the movie is doing by the generic names for such things as the Country Gas Station. Cronenberg sets up the film so that the moment of discovery is postponed until the end, a structure which may have been inevitable but which unfortunately does not succeed.

I'm a fan of Cronenberg and his work; sometimes my affinity to Cronenberg's typical sensibility is a little disturbing, but I like the chances that he takes and I like the way he has a vision, successful or not. Too bad that this particular film doesn't transcend its shock-trash roots. Just as Dick could not always pull off this trick, Cronenberg doesn't succeed this time around. I'll be curious to see what he does next.

DVD Note: The DVD edition of eXistenZ includes an hour-long documentary on "The Invisible Art of Carole Spier." Spier is a production designer, and a long-time collaborator with Cronenberg; this documentary doesn't include anything on eXistenZ but it does have a great deal of material about Cronenberg's previous movies. The DVD also includes 3 commentary tracks. Peter Suschitzky and Jim Isaac are the director of photography and the visual and special effects designer for the movie, respectively, and each get their own commentary track. Cronenberg also contributes an audio commentary, and he is dead serious about his movie from beginning to end, dropping names like Heidegger and Schopenhauer, and generally not talking about how the movie is supposed to be fun! The only time he breaks the serious tone is when he relates how someone once asked him if he was aware of the sexual overtones in the movie. Cronenberg's ideas for eXistenZ were clearly interesting and well-intentioned and strongly argued, but as I mentioned, I felt that the movie didn't live up to that potential.


First posted: November 18, 2000; Last modified: February 29, 2004

Copyright © 2000-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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