MEDIA: eXistenZ

Scott Badger (
Thu, 29 Apr 1999 23:16:40 -0500

Coming soon to a theater near you!


Director--David Cronenberg
Starring Ian Holm, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe Sci Fi Thriller 97 min
Rated R

Rich and Rewarding | Review by Tom Keogh

It's no accident that movies based on video games (such as the recent Wing Commander) tend to look and feel lifeless. They're based on a medium where technology is in the service of private sport, where emotions and urges swell behind the limp forms of captivated players.

David Cronenberg's eXistenZ is not based on a video game but, rather, suggests that electronic gaming is really one more technological refraction of our essential primitiveness. In fact, the film doesn't really need to focus on games at all: Cronenberg has made the point more than once that human advances in gadgetry (Videodrome), science (The Fly), consciousness (Naked Lunch), or random bits of evolutionary expansion (Scanners) are really higher thresholds for the same old, gut-bucket instincts: jealousy, survival, dominance, isolation. In eXistenZ he finds a provocative vehicle for his old themes in the story of a direct, virtual-reality link to the human central nervous system, exploring the most profound implications for an internal experience born of marrying technology and bodies.

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Allegra Geller, a superstar in the world of game design and the object of intense devotion by players wired at the base of their spines for virtual-reality input. Brought to a secret gathering of volunteers chosen to test-run a bold new game called eXistenZ, Allegra is wounded by a would-be assassin, an anti-game Luddite who shoots her with a human tooth fired from a gun made of bone. Rescued by Ted (Jude Law), a newcomer to the firm manufacturing eXistenZ, Allegra flees to one false haven (a gas station run by a bounty-hunting Willem Dafoe) and then, apparently, a true one (the laboratories of a Russian bio-tech researcher, played by Ian Holm).

There, she and Ted (who reluctantly allows a game implant to be inserted in his back) immerse themselves in the shifting planes of perceived reality inherent in playing eXistenz. At times, they are driven by outer-controlled feelings of sexual craving or aggression; at others they try to decode the meaning of characters and actions they meet in a virtual Chinese restaurant or fishery. As in his film of Naked Lunch, Cronenberg loops certain experiences, words, and people through different chapters in his story, creating an echo effect with an oddly mournful air. (That bone gun, for instance, disturbingly reconstructs itself during a food scene.) The longer the movie runs on, the more extensive the game's full reach, so that after a while eXistenz seems to be nothing less than existence itself.

The film looks deceptively small, but in his interview, Cronenberg says the production actually cost far more than Crash did. He suggests that it was actually his decision to strip the actors and art direction of everyday things -- jewelry, knick-knacks -- that gives eXistenZ a dislocating spareness. He's absolutely right: there is something unnervingly sub-normal in the off-the-rack look of people with no distinguishing signs of their time on Earth. Equally spooky are the minimal, organically based tools through which Allegra and other gamers maneuver their way through eXistenZ, manipulating something that looks as if it belongs next to your liver instead of squeezing a joystick.

Whatever it cost, eXistenZ is Cronenberg in a minor mode, cultivating and refreshing his preoccupations within a narrow framework before diving again into uncharted ambitions. eXistenZ is a chance to see a master at work for its own sake, and as such this is a rich and rewarding film.

I'm looking forward to it.