Movie Review: eXistenZ (1999)

EXISTENZ (capitalized eXistenZ, 1999)

Directed by: David Cronenberg(yay!!)

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Christopher Eccleston

At first glance, eXistenZ is not David Cronenberg’s best film. It is not a bad film, by any means; on the contrary, it’s actually pretty damn good. However, it was made during the transitional period where Cronenberg was heading towards less visceral, more cerebral fare, like A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises. As such, there’s an awkward fit between the film’s dramatic themes(more common in Cronenberg’s most recent fare) and its fantastic elements(much more common in his classic era). However, two things make the movie great: its very cerebral themes and how unexpectedly influential it is.

(Note: To distinguish one from the other, the film will be written italicized as eXistenZ, while the computer program will be written as eXistenZ)

The basic plot: in a not so distant future, video games have evolved beyond simple entertainment into the realm of pure escapism. Gaming computers are now bio-engineered organic things, which connect directly to a user’s nervous system, projecting themselves directly to their brain. Allegra Geller, a video game designer for Antenna Research, is the world’s greatest video game designer, and in a conference she is unveiling eXistenZ, her newest gaming masterpiece, and supposedly the most advanced and realistic game yet. During the conference, an attempt on her life is made, and she is carried away by a young Antenna intern named Ted Pikul. Allegra is eerily calm for someone who just had an attempt on her life, but is also very paranoid about the whole thing, and keeps insisting that Ted help her test eXistenZ on her rig, since it’s the only copy of the program and she needs an outside person to test run it to see if it’s functioning correctly. eXistenZ, as it turns out, does work, FRIGHTENINGLY so. The game is practically indistinguishable from reality… and you can see where this is going.

If you get a serious case of déjà vu from that synopsis, yeah, I saw The Matrixtoo. Do note, though, that The Matrix and eXistenZ came out practically simultaneously, one being released merely weeks after the other, so there’s really no link there other than the filmmakers coming up with similar ideas at roughly the same time. However, where The Matrix had two distinct layers of reality and mostly used the concept as setting, eXistenZ was the first movie to really explore the theme on a psychological level and explore multiple layers which start confusing the senses into questioning what’s real. The fake reality of The Matrix was imposed since birth, and was for all purposes real life until someone unplugged you from it; then it shattered like the illusion it was and you could never see it as real life again. In eXistenZ, people created the virtual world as a way to escape reality, and they desire that fake reality much more than the real one. Whereas The Matrix symbolizes a prison to break out off, eXistenZ is a prison of our own making, or perhaps even a vehicle to escape the prison of real life. Also, eXistenZ is no popcorn movie. eXistenZ is as similar in themes and different in approach to The Matrix as the Ridley Scott-directed Alien is to its James Cameron-directed sequel.

eXistenZ has much more in common with a drug than a game, and the theme of addiction and obsession is as present in this film as much as any of Cronenberg’s other fare. People become so addicted to the escapist games that they neglect their real lives. They see Allegra as a literal goddess, as someone worthy of worship. This is reinforced by the game’s name: “isten”, if you notice, is capitalized differently, and it’s Hungarian for “god.” There’s also an immensely sexual connotation to eXistenZ as well. The computers that run the game are organic, flesh-colored, looking like a mass of labia, clitorises and nipples. The wire you connect it to your body with looks like an umbilical cord. The port you need to get to use it looks like a sphincter muscle. A person who’s hooked into the game writes and moans as if in sexual ecstasy.

Using an entertainment medium as an analogy, eXistenZ also serves as an essay on escapism, obsession with media and desensitization. You see people in the game act out urges they don’t dare act on in real life, including gleefully murder a human being or have sex without consequence. However, it also posits that these are all choices the characters make, and one of them even comments about how, if you’re not able to distinguish one reality from the next, can you tell if you’re merely killing a game construct or an actual human being. However, Cronenberg’s not trying to preach, he’s trying to get us to think and come to our own conclusions. This movie’s not a Columbine-style condemnation of media, it is an appeal to personal responsibility. After all, Cronenberg’s an outspoken defender of free speech and condemner of censorship in all forms. The timing of the film is pretty eerie, too: eXistenZ came out just three days after the Columbine Massacre.

All the elements mentioned so far also, coincidentally, make eXistenZ a sort of spiritual successor to another Cronenberg film, Videodrome. In fact, one could say that eXistenZ is to the videogame generation what Videodrome was to the VCR generation. A double-feature of both films back to back would make for a very fun and cerebral movie night.

The theme of layers of reality becoming blurred with one another and looking for answers in a virtual world also shows the movie influenced Christopher Nolan’s Inception. This has more credence than you get from a first glance: Christopher Priest, the novelist who wrote the novelization for eXistenZ also wrote the novel The Prestige, one of the best movie adaptations of a novel ever and one of Nolan’s finest films. If anything, it proves that Nolan has the same appreciation for the theme that Cronenberg has, and watching eXistenZ after watching Inception is a refreshing experience. Seeing similar themes on a movie released a decade before does not take anything away from Inception, instead elevating eXistenZ, and it also proves that part of what makes Nolan such a great director is that he was influenced by one of the greats.

Writing this review, I realized that I had a sort of blasé reaction to the movie as I finished watching it. I liked it, but kinda shrugged my shoulders, not really being blown away by it like I have been by other Cronenberg films. Yet, the more I think about the movie’s themes and the questions it raises, the more it grows on me. This is part of what makes the movie great: it stays with you and makes you think. Many movies serve as an escape from reality. Few are successful at doing so while making you actually ask yourself WHY you’re doing it. It’s not an easy feat, and doing it successfully is what makes eXistenZ a great film. Definitely worth checking out.