Death to Reality: 'eXistenZ' Review
What do you get when you let the director of Videodrome and The Fly make a film about video games? Well, an excellent and bizarre film about how video games affect our reality and a whole lot of body horror.
Released the same year as that other film that explored the idea of a virtual reality whenever you jack into a system (yes, I’m talking about The Matrix) with a lot of philosophical ramifications; eXistenZ takes the ideas of a Philip K. Dick novel and interprets them through the sci-fi horror lens of celebrated director David Cronenberg.
The action begins at a demonstration where superstar game designer Allegra Geller (an excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh) is ready to exhibit her latest game, eXistenZ. But things turn deadly when she becomes a target for a sinister conspiracy that thrusts her and her young assistant Ted Pikul (Jude Law in one of his major starring roles) into a dangerous game of cat and mouse that takes them into the very world of eXistenZ and beyond.
Cronenberg has always had a fascination with virtual reality; he explored it before with his mind-bending Videodrome, but with eXistenZ, he makes it the main attraction. It’s a shame that Cronenberg’s film never quite got the attention it deserves because it explores some thoroughly fascinating and thought-provoking ideas about the nature of reality, obsession, consumerism and the spiritual and corporeal connection between humans and technology.
Bursting with graphic imagery and complex ideas, eXistenZ is also a well paced and inventive “on the road” thriller that finds our protagonists trying to escape the people who’re working to kill them. And, much like any other Cronenberg film, you notice when it starts to get awesomely weird. As soon as Geller and Pikul enter eXistenZ, it becomes this mind bending and the strange odyssey that has our characters questioning reality through multiple levels and encountering how their choices affect, not only the game but themselves as well. In that case, eXistenZ is also a thoughtful look at the nature of self and what defines us as human when technology is presented in a way that can change us.
Even when it comes to the practical effects and the “video game” aesthetics and components, eXistenZ is pure Cronenberg. The game pods, which players use it to jack into the game, are sentient mechanisms, made out of frog parts, which are not only alive but have a particular personality. There’s a particular sexual aesthetic to the way that players can jack into the world; this is all part of Cronenberg’s obsession between how the body and technology are connected, which are ideas that he perfected in films like Videodrome. It’s interesting to note that eXistenZ marks Cronenberg’s last foray into the hard science fiction world for which he became known for with films like Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, and Naked Lunch. But if there’s a grand statement that Cronenberg has been working out to say with the relationship between the body and technology then it’s fittingly and wonderfully encapsulated in his late classic, eXistenZ.
With its moody score by Cronenberg’s regular composer Howard Shore, an excellent cast (including impressive supporting work from Willem Dafoe and Christopher Eccleston) and beautiful photography by Peter Suschitzky (who also shot such classics as The Empire Strikes Back, Naked Lunch and A History of Violence), eXistenZ is both a mind-bending exploration of video games and one of Cronenberg’s late masterpieces that requires and demands multiple viewings.