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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Canadian Film Review: eXistenZ (1999)

* * * 1/2

Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law

Where does the game end and reality begin? If the game is so realistic that the distinction isn't obvious, does the distinction really exist at all? David Cronenberg's eXistenZ is a film of big and intriguing ideas. With the help of a terrific cast (seriously, there isn't a weak link in the bunch) he explores these ideas in an effective and very engaging way.

The story takes place sometime in the near future when a game designer named Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) unveils eXistenZ, her new game, to a focus group. Before things can get underway, however, an assassination attempt is made on her and she flees with Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a marketing trainee. Because the assassination attempt took place as the game was being downloaded, Allegra worries that the game may now be corrupted and talks Ted into having a bio-port installed so that he can help her test the system. This involves a gas station attendant - named Gas (Willem Defoe) - shooting Ted in the back with a rivet gun, a fact which understandly makes Ted ill at ease (though he does go through with it). Gas, however, turns out to be more foe than friend and wants the ransom that has been placed on Allegra's head. She and Ted manage to escape and run to Allegra's mentor Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm), who promises to help Allegra save her game.

Allegra and Ted enter eXistenZ and begin following the game's storyline. Things start to go awry, however, when they realize that they may have trusted the wrong person and thereby sent the game into chaos. Coming back to reality they realize that what's happened in the game may have infected the console, which in turn will destroy eXistenZ forever. Or will it? Are they still in the game? The film's spectacular finale involves many reversals and twists that keep you guessing in its final minutes.

Cronenberg, who wrote the screenplay in addition to taking on directing duties, keeps the story moving at a fast and engaging pace, and finds a good balance between action and the intellectual concerns of the story. Though it's primary concern is with the relationship between human beings and technology - and the psychological shifts and crises that can result from the speed at which technology is advancing - the story is more interesting for the way that it plays on ideas of body horror and how it uses those themes to subvert gender roles and assumptions. For example, though science and technology are male-dominated fields, the gaming equipment rather obviously alludes to the female side of reproduction, the cord connecting the system to the player blatantly resembling an umbilical cord. Another example is the bio-port and the scene in which Allegra plugs Ted into the game. She's literally penetrating him, taking the film up to a whole other psychosexual level. It's a film that leaves you with a lot to think about and discuss, but it manages to explore its themes without becoming weighted down by them.

All in all, I think that eXistenZ holds up really well, which isn't something you can say about all science fiction films, particularly those set in the near future. That being said, however, seeing this film for the first time just recently, I couldn't help but be reminded of Inception since both films are built on layers upon layers of story levels. Inception did a lot of things better, I think, and while that really shouldn't reflect on effectiveness of eXistenZ, since it came out a decade earlier and with a much smaller budget, I couldn't help but feel that its impact was ultimately muted. Still, I enjoyed eXistenZ a lot and definitely plan to revist it for future viewings.


blake said...

This movie jarred me. I've had more than one dream about biological docking.

I love Cronenberg, but I don't think I could bring myself to watch this one again.

Norma Desmond said...

I'm sorry to hear that it's caused you such great psychological damage.