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David Cronenberg

I had forgotten what it felt like to watch a Cronenberg film. It’s a difficult feeling to describe, a combination of interest, bewilderment, wonder and revulsion. The man has a style all his own, and in over 20 years of film making, hasn’t lost his ability to approach a subject, any subject, from a perspective all his own. This time the subject is video games.

Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Gellar, the worlds most sought after and creative video game designer, who is currently under the employ of the Antennae Corporation, developers of the quite unique and interesting bio-technology the eXistenZ game uses. The film opens on a control group who have been chosen to beta-test, or try out, what Gellar claims is a game like none before it. She goes on to explain that through the use of game pods, basically the controller, people will interface with the game organically, by connecting to the pod with an umbilical like cord that plugs directly into the players spine! Sound bizarre? Keep reading.

The control group plugs in, and begins to play. At this point I expected to be whisked into the game world in a special effects whirlwind. It didn’t happen. Instead, the camera focuses in on the pods and we begin to get the idea that these pods are alive. Not only alive, but in true Cronenberg form, sensual. The sexual overtones in this scene were overwhelming at first and got quite a few comments out of the people I was viewing the film with. The pods themselves were a flesh colored, knobby organism that undulated about in the lap of the player. The players don’t play long, as an assassin, bent on destroying Gellar and here creation in order to preserve true reality, springs his trap and produces a very strange looking organic gun that appears to be fashioned out of some sort of carcass.

At this point I started to get interested. Just what in the world was going on here?

A commotion ensues and the man running the control group grabs the door man, Ted Pikal (Jude Law), and tells him he must get Gellar, who has been shot in the arm, away to safety. The duo escape and drive away, looking for some sort of hideaway to gather themselves and figure out what has happened. Gellar tells Ted Pikal (Law’s character) that her game pod contains the only source copy of ExisTenZ in existence, and that in order to preserve it, she must play the game with someone friendly. The control group had been infiltrated and her game was in danger. Law reminds her she has been shot and should be worrying about things other than her game at this point, but here we start to get the idea that Gellar is a woman obsessed, and her game is all she cares about, and not just having her game, playing it. Law digs the bullet out only to discover it is a human tooth! Now I am really interested.

She continues to insist that she must play with a friendly, and play now. We soon discover that Pikal doesn’t have a bioport, as his fear of something going wrong on installation has stopped him from getting the minor surgery required. To Gellar this in unacceptable and she insists they venture out to find her friend, Gas (Willam Defoe), to get a port installed so they can play and save the source code. From here on, lots of twists and turns and alternate realities are portrayed, and I found myself enjoying the ride. Again I have to mention the constant bombardment of sexual ideas and imagery. A lot of the interaction between Pikal and Gellar has an intimate feel, and any interaction with the game pods has major sexual overtones. There are also a few gruesome surgery scenes with the biopods that are exceptionally repulsive, as well as various scenes where various objects get inserted into a lubed up bioport (the ports bearing a striking resemblance to other body orifices). Cronenberg at his best in other words.

When the viewer is finally brought into the game, it coincides with Law’s first insertion into the game and the scenes are handled quite well, with almost no special effects. For a film dealing with virtual reality to use little or no special effects and still deliver is quite impressive to me. Numerous other films have attempted virtual reality and overdone the alternate realities with effects (The Cell), instilling a most unrealistic feel in the audience. Cronenberg uses camera techniques for the reality shifts instead, and the effect is fabulous. I did pick up on what was going on with the realities pretty early on in the film, but feel the director intended this, as the clues were obviously meant to allude to the fact that something wasn’t right or real about the places some of the characters were going.

Most of the performances were well played and believable, even if the subject matter requires a stretch for believability. Law was great as usual, and Leigh surprised me somewhat, although she seemed better in some scenes more than others. DeFoe is always great, and in this film my only complaint being that he doesn’t get enough screen time.

I really enjoyed eXistenZ! Cronenberg combines gaming, emotion, neurosis, and corporate espionage into one intriguing picture. I felt it was slightly derivative of other films in the genre, but Cronenberg gives it enough style and such a unique tone that it I hardly noticed. So, If mind bending science fiction sprinkled with a healthy dose of social allegory as well as sexuality is something you might enjoy, I would definitely recommend eXistenZ.