eXistenZ (1999)

I often spend time watching movies thinking about what to write in the review afterward (it can often take me a half hour or more as is, so I like to have something in mind, even if it’s disparate chunks to be assembled later–not that I don’t end up incoherent anyway) and I spent part of this one trying to recall how it was I first heard of eXistenZ. Suddenly the image of Willem DaFoe as “Gas” popped into my head along with the idea of Fangoria. A quick Googling followed by perusal of my collection led me to issue 1999 from January 2001. Lo, there is Willem being interviewed for Shadow of the Vampire, and one of the accompanying photos is the one I recalled. He notes in the accompanying interview that he finds it amusing how much his part was played up, makes a joke about the “name” his character has and vriefly discusses working with Cronenberg on it. This was the seed of my interest in the film, leading me to eventually catch it on some premium movie channel or other. I avoided purchasing the DVDs, despite the number of times I revisit the movie, because I wanted the Canadian release, which actually has special features.

eXistenZ begins in a very barren church, barren, that is, except for the non-religious (actually, that’s debatable, but it’s not the religion the church building stands for) gathering occurring there. Christopher Eccleston (the second-to-last Doctor Who, military commander in 28 Days Later and so on) is introducing a crowd in the pews to the new game they are about to test–eXistenZ (“little e, capital X, capital Z”), designed by Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). A group is selected to test the game out of the crowd, after having passed under the scanner of Ted Pikul (Jude Law) to guarantee they have nothing to record the game or sneak out video or audio. We discover suddenly that we are in a world where console systems (here called “game pods”) are strange, squishy, animate objects that have cords that look somewhat stunningly like intestines to plug directly into the player’s spinal cord. Obviously at this point we know that we are not in the world we are all familiar with, and things only go further when an assassination attempt on Allegra fails, with Pikul whisking her off to escape any further attempts and attempt to preserve her new game.

When we meet DaFoe, a gas station attendant (creatively named “Gas” according to his coveralls’ nametag), we find a strange two-headed mutant lizardbeast that Geller ponders. After another unexpected attempt on her life, the two of them hide instead with Kiri Vinokur (the always-great Ian Holm), Geller’s fellow employee at Antenna Research, and finally we see what eXistenZ (the game, that is!) is like. It’s much like reality, a completely immersive experience that is only slightly off-kilter from the reality Pikul and Geller know. There are the marks of games as they exist in the real world–NPCs (Non-Player Characters, here referred to as “Game Characters”) will get caught in loops if not prompted with the correct action, simply repeating themselves or staring dumbly until the player performs the correct action. Suddenly we find ourselves in a somewhat more Cronenbergian environment–Ted, as his game character, is a worker in the “Trout Farm” where mutant fish and amphibians are dissected so that their parts can be used to build game pods. They are tossed back and forth in a sort of political intrigue between “realists” and the employees of Cortical Systematics, a game company in the eXistenZ world–agents like Yevgeny Nourish (Don McKellar), Hugo Carlaw (Callum Keith Rennie, Memento‘s briefly seen Dodd), and D’Arcy Nader (Cronenberg favourite Robert A. Silverman) replete with intentionally awful Irish accent as a game character.

Unsurprisingly, the film is both laden with visceral physical effects and with intellectual/psychological discussion and symbolism, both inevitable in any work of Cronenberg–and he both wrote AND directed this one. The overarching ideas are that reality is a confusion, and how different are games from reality? What is the separation, when technology is effective enough to blur the lines to even our senses? It’s one he has already visited in Videodrome, leading to unfair and inaccurate comparisons between the two. Yes, there are some basic-level similarities, but Videodrome is a dirtier movie, which I say because of its centering on the idea of “snuff” films, where eXistenZ is both visually and thematically slicker, dealing with gaming and games, things that are not accidentally picked up from stray broadcast signals. It becomes less a revelling in the despairing confusion between vicarious living and reality and more an exploration of where that confusion begins and ends–or if it even does. Geller says at one point, after Pikul points out the deficiency of free will in the game–“It’s like real life, just enough to make it interesting.” In the various levels of reality, both the one we know in our own reality, the one we first experience in the film and finally the one that is labelled “game” in the film, we find familiar objects re-purposed or re-arranged to new effect, or sometimes even similar ones but re-formed in new ways to achieve this same effect.

One of the absolute stars of this film is Carol Spier, despite the fact that she is not one of the actors. She is Cronenberg’s production designer and has worked on the great majority of his films from 1979’s Fast Company all the way through last year’s Eastern Promises. She brings a strange beauty to the grotesque so prevalent in Cronenberg’s work, such as the gynecological instruments used by the Mantle twins in Dead Ringers, or the strange biological gun in this film, or the living typewriter in Naked Lunch. All have the appropriate amount or lack of goo and texture for their respective purposes, occasionally perhaps enhanced beyond the “appropriate” to perfectly enhance the impression the viewer gets of them. She masterfully sets up even the design of the church the film is set in, following the requests of David insofar as inclusion of pews and how he lights. Howard Shore, another of Cronenberg’s consistent collaborators brings a nice, creeping score to the film, simply modulating string and brass tones beneath scenes in that way that our brains have been trained to associate with ominous, disturbing and unusual atmospheres.

A lot of criticism has been levelled at this film for various reasons, often thanks to comparisons with The Matrix, Dark City and so on. It’s not really appropriate, as they are all addressing different concepts, though all operating on the same theme. Jude Law’s acting is criticized, but this is almost even more unfair. He’s playing a character in much of the film, which is to say, even WITHIN the film, and outside that he is an outsider trying to break into an environment which he admires but is unfamiliar with. He’s appropriately subdued and ignorant throughout, surprised and believably nervous whenever something becomes clear to him that he was not previously aware of regarding the gaming world. Leigh is a perfect balance to this as the shy, quiet sort, natural for a programmer, but also consistently, she is filled with brassy confidence, always sure that she knows what’s going on better than most people around her. Neither performance really ever slips from what it is intended to be, the real problem stemming more likely from expectations that people have wandering into the film after hearing the above comparisons, or after seeing some of Cronenberg’s less cerebral work.

I remain just as entertained, satisfied and yes, even puzzled by this film as ever, despite seeing it a good number of times over the years, and I am enthused to have this particular disc, what with its discussion of Spier’s work on the film, and a brief discussion of earlier work on David’s films.

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