Allegra Geller, a world famous game designer and Ted Pikul, a marketing trainee, go on the run after reality-enthusiast assassins try to kill Allegra.
Man, I sure love Cronenberg.
How would I describe this film to somebody unfamiliar with Cronenberg’s other work? Well, this movie is like “The Matrix” on acid and with a dash of body horror. Coincidentally, this film was released the same year as “The Matrix”, and focuses on many of the same themes: virtual reality vs reality, and what it means to really perceive and feel and exist. While this film isn’t as polished as “The Matrix”, it is a movie that is incredibly unique, and for the right audience, it will certainly thrill and intrigue. For myself, a seasoned Cronenberg fan, I found exactly what I wanted: bizarre and slightly disturbing situations with great practical visuals and a memorable storyline that gets into your body and wraps itself around your spine, much like some of the game pods in this film.
“Death to the demoness Allegra Geller!”
Ted Pikul (Jude Law, “Vox Lux”) is a marketing trainee that works for a game manufacturing company called eXistenZ, which, at the start of our film, is testing a new game system that ports directly into the gamer’s body via a ‘bioport.’ The gaming demonstration is interrupted by a man who shoots the world famous game designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh, “Annihilation”); Allegra survives, but must flee with Pikul. Allegra, nervous that the interruption messed with her game pod, insists that they test the system to make sure it isn’t broken, but when they do, it thrusts them into a world more bizarre than they’d ever imagined.
So first and foremost, I love the originality of many of Cronenberg’s worlds, and this one is more alien than some of the others. The world which Cronenberg has created for this film is one that serves a purpose, and that is to attack the widening disconnect between reality and ourselves. It’s funny, while this film is almost twenty years old, it feels more relevant than ever (when was the last time you went a day without your smart phone?). The constant theme of reality vs virtual is something that comes up in the very first scene of this film and stays with us all the way until the credits roll. But while Cronenberg raises a question: what is better/ healthier, he doesn’t really provide an answer, and sometimes that’s better. Leaving a question unanswered allows the viewer to participate, and create his or her own judgments about what the piece really was meant to say. I wont go so far as to say that this is one of Cronenberg’s best films (it’s good, but not as great as his psychological thrillers, like “Dead Ringers" or “Spider”, or even some of his other body horror stuff like “The Fly" or “Videodrome”), but the question it raises makes this film worth visiting alone.
Another thing I really liked about this film was the way that Cronenberg built the word; the worlds of reality and the worlds inside eXistenZ. They are messed up and weird enough to keep a horror or sci-fi fan interested, but they are actually really well developed. While Cronenberg delights in showing us things that are glistening with gory gristle, the graphic details are not without reason- each object, no matter how weird, has a purpose. There are rules to the worlds that Sam and Allegra have are in, and watching them piece together new clues and ideas is incredibly entertaining. One rule that I thought was really unique was the idea that, whilst in the worlds of eXistenZ, the player’s characters would sometimes have uncontrollable urges to do something in the game, which would then progress the game’s storyline forward. Of course, what would this movie be without Cronenberg’s weird body horror elements? The bioports are strange little holes in the back of one’s spine; the way that one plugs into the game feels slightly sexualized, and the idea of connecting bodies with intestine looking tubes will make most viewers squirm in their seats. What really took me by surprise were some of the creature designs at the “trout farm,” a place where the gamers dissect mutated amphibians. There were also tiny details that I loved about the film that were reminiscent of actual video games: NPCs not responding if not asked the correct question, some situations being solved by video game logic (ie. The idea that the flesh and bone gun is brought to different people by a dog), and of course the aforementioned scenes when characters loose control of their bodies and act out what I would imagine are Cronenberg’s version of ‘cut scenes.’
Most of the fun from this movie comes from how the characters react and learn about the world around them, and Jude Law does a great job of maintaining a sort of intrigued innocence, which, in turn, kept me interested throughout the film. I will say that the first twenty minutes of this film are a bit slow, but by the time our heroes reach the country gas station, things have certainly gotten interesting. Jennifer Jason Leigh wasn’t quite as good as Jude Law; there were a few scenes where her delivery felt quite stilted, enough to make me laugh during scenes I wasn’t intended to. For most of the film, however, I was totally plugged into this movie, and as a whole it’s incredibly entertaining.
I feel like if you like Cronenberg, you’ll probably like this movie; if you haven’t seen much of Cronenberg, I’m honestly not sure what you’d think of this film. I’d actually be eager to hear what an uninitiated Cronenberg viewer would think of this movie; I feel like my journey with Cronenberg stretches back more than a decade, to the point where I feel like I’ve just always enjoyed his films. His films- particularly his body horror stuff- don’t always resonate some audiences, but for me, they certainly do. I recommend this film, but I do so with a clause; if you haven’t seen Cronenberg, start with something a touch more mainstream, like “Dead Ringers" or “The Fly”.
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
Review Written By: