Cast: Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Ian Holm
Director: David Cronenberg
98 minutes (15) 1999
101 Films Black Label
Blu-ray region B
[Released 21st May]
Review by Steven Hampton
It wasn’t entirely obvious before 2005 but in retrospect it’s clear that David Cronenberg’s phenomenal VR drama, eXistenZ, actually beats The Matrix at its own game. How much this opinion might result from a considerable devaluation of The Matrix because of its sadly disappointing sequels remains one nagging question. I am certain only that I prefer to revisit the always-fascinating realms of Allegra Geller than the split and spliced worlds of Trinity and Neo. Even after at least half a dozen viewings, I suspect there are yet more revelatory layers of schizophrenic characterisation and rich thematic allusion in eXistenZ waiting to be discovered but The Matrix, plus Reloaded and Revolutions sequels, gives up all its trilogy’s mockingly futuristic, pseudo-mythic secrets with far fewer repeats. Placed alongside the brilliantly devised SF-horror classic Videodrome (1983), eXistenZ surely is Cronenberg’s most provocative and intelligent work, and it makes complete nonsense of such ‘designer’ chillers as Tarsem’s The Cell (2000), that now appears to be merely like a twisted children’s playground in comparison to Crony’s incisive commentary on visionary cyber-culture and virtual crimes.
One of the greatest millennial movies, eXistenZ barricades its protagonists inside a genre nightmare from the very limits of a broken reality. For the private demo of an immersive game, the heroine Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) attracts a homicidal stalker while novice marketeer Ted (Jude Law) strives to protect Allegra from the crazy killer. As a dotted line between fantasy and reality begins to blur into a single seamless contiguous imaginarium the real-life dangers that the couple sought to escape from merge, startlingly, with inner-space worlds. Access to the game environment is by organic-looking meta-flesh consoles that wriggle or squirm as twitchy gateways for the random group of new-product testers, with the 12 players’ bio-ports connected via umbilical-style cables. Introduced as the ‘game-pod goddess’, the unwary Allegra is shot by a lone gun-man armed with an absurdist pistol of made of bones, a bio-mechanical weapon that fires human teeth as bullets.
With heroes on the run from bounty-hunting assassins in the service of a fatwa, eXistenZ becomes a road movie about a questing journey on futurism’s information superhighway. Nervous as a sex-phobic virgin, Ted’s panicky response to his first porting inadvertently causes a neuro-surge that locks Allegra out of her own game, the original and only copy of eXistenZ. Ian Holm plays the engineer who examines Allegra’s damaged pod and it’s faux-medical scene is reminiscent of Holm as android Ash performing a post-mortem on the hideous face-hugger in Alien (1979). Game-character based attitudes promote episodic/ schizoid behaviour in players. Allegra’s off-screen change into a skirt, after wearing-the-trousers in a partnership with reluctant hero Ted, marks a switcheroo from femme fatale to damsel in distress. Or is that a role-reversal?
Typically for Cronenberg’s cinematic oeuvre, the directorial focus is upon intensely sexual imagery of penetration anxiety and parasitic infection, ranging from uncomfortably icky to disturbingly gross. Mutation describes the experimental narrative functions, where “everything used to be something else”, and evolutionary story elements develop along a conceptual bridge - from just ‘playing’ at science fiction to practical concerns like working in bio-tech farming systems. The GM ‘special’ dish at a Chinese restaurant is plainly not a very popular choice for lunch. Some assembly is required to weaponise the main course. It serves up food for thoughts on the morality of misapplied gadgetry. In this SF drama’s bleeding-edge world, even cuddly rubbery mechanisms might catch a grotesque disease.
The revolutionary’s cry of “death to realism” echoes Videodrome’s climactic “long live the new flesh.” So, why not join the revolution at Cortical Symantics..? Hey, we’ll have a few laughs, or maybe not. But, “what if we’re not in the game anymore?” OK, survivors! Let’s all get ready for transcendence.