eXistenZ (1999)

Intimacy, Cronenberg style.
Know what could’ve made this creepier? A funk-a-delic porn soundtrack. Ah yeah! Cronenberg style, baby.

…yes, but, after M. Butterfly, and especially after Crash, writer/director David Cronenberg suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous critical fortune and the inevitable backlash from snobs. Either horror snobs scoffed at his Chinese Opera movie, or the art house snobs called his sex-and-car-crashes movie “pretentious.” And when the San Francisco Chronicle calls you “pretentious” you’ve either made it to the Absolute Height of North American cinema…or you’re in serious trouble.

Alright. Not too serious, but still…I can see why, after all that, he went back to the well for a refresher. Back to the ol’ Body Horror stomping grounds that were so good to him in the 70s and 80s. Back to the concerns and questions that haunt his entire career. Questions of identity when your biology runs riot. Questions of ethics and morality in a world of simulacra. Questions of humanity in an age that does its best to reduce, marginalize, and (should it fail in the first two) eliminate human beings.

When this film premiered in April, 1999, my only question was, “Has the well finally run dry?”

"My name is Italian for 'joy' and I'm an umblical cord-aholic."
“My name is Italian for ‘joy’ and I’m an umbilical cord-aholic.”

You’d think so from this flick’s abysmal box office (but there I go, right off the bat, reducing people to dollar signs) and its complete disappearance from everyone’s critical radars. For me, though, slipping into any of Cronenberg’s movies is like slipping into an old shoe. His trademark off-putting weirdness can itself become comforting. Which is probably why he stopped making straight-up horror movies in the first place.

Such is the creative cycle. The Artist tires of doing what their audience expect of them. The audience tires of the Artist “trying new things,” and begins interpreting that as “screwing around in public.” I haven’t felt such a clear sense of contempt for audience expectations since the last time I watched Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, and your enjoyment of eXistenZ will probably depend on how much slack you’re willing to give Cronenberg. He’s earned a lot from me, and earns a little more when he puts lines like this

“The world of games is in kind of a trance. People are programed to accept so little, yet the possibilities are so great.”

into the mouths of his protagonists. Change the word “games” to “movies” or “books” or encompass them all with the blanket terms “entertainment” or “art” and you’d have the mission statement of this website (and quite a few others, I’m sure. Most of them over there, on the right-hand sidebar, under Critical Mass and Personal Heroes).

"Trust me. I'm the Doctor."
“Trust me. I’m the Doctor.”

eXistenZ open in what might as well be a Shaker church somewhere in the wilds of Wherever. PR and marketing agents of the tech company Antenna have rented out the hall and stocked it full of extras in order to beta test their latest game, the titular eXistenZ. Its designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is making a rare flesh-space appearance to walk the first group of proles through her “baby.” Allegra, we’re informed, is the most fantastical game designer on this version of planet Earth, and certainly one of the hottest in the entire multiverse. Despite this, someone‘s targeted her for assassination, as we see when an attempt on her life scuttles the test event.

“Death to the demoness Allegra Geller!” her assassin shouts, in true James Woods-ian style, before opening fire with a gun stolen from one of H.R. Giger’s sketchbooks. Constructed from what looks like cooked chicken bones and loaded with clips full of human teeth (the better to defeat metal detectors), it’s a messy, purposefully-disgusting-looking weapon that completely fails to get the job done. I expect the United Federation of Planets to begin mass producing them any day now.

Still, Allegra’s somewhat stressed by her close brush with death. Fearing everything and everyone, Allegra flees with her designated PR handler, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), down the back roads of…Wherever. Ted was the man at the door with the metal detector, and whatever contrition he might feel for missing the Tooth Fairy’s gun gets immediately mollified by the fact Allegra’s insane.

"Is that your best?"
“Is that your best?”

Not tearing-her-hair out, mind, but she’s the stereotypical game designer: a weird recluse, content to sit at home, alone, with her games and the bio-mechanical systems that make up gaming consoles in this world…which, we soon realize, is actually a Sci-fi Dystopia. No one out and out says as much, and that’s what I like the most about eXistenZ‘s freaky little world.

It’s half-past The Future and civilization’s continued race towards its own inevitable crash has fucked the environment over to a point where Allegra (the supposed shut-in) can shrug off the two-headed frog/salamander they find crawling around a roadside gas station. As with everything else, humanity’s chosen to deal with this crisis by exploiting it for the maximum amount of corporate profit. Hence the “metaflesh game pods” constructed from the organs of mutant animals that interface with players through umbilical cords and a “bio-port” mounted on the small of your back. The installation of bio-ports has become so common, Allegra compares it to getting your ear pierced at the mall.

Incidentally, remember when ear piercing was actually a big deal? I can recall a time when idiotically silly debates about all the dire things its increasing popularity (along with that other great 21st Century bourgeoisie past-time, tattooing) represented for America’s Youth. Kinda like video games…which were also a Hard Target for late 90s Moral Crusaders eager to blame outbreaks of middle-class white kid-on-middle-class white kid violence on anything…other than themselves.

Man...Nintendo fans'll buy anything.
Man…Nintendo fans’ll buy anything.

I’d hate to think Cronenberg (of all people) got seduced by their snake oil sales pitch and a small part of me cringes whenever one of the characters says something about their world’s games industry. It seems designed by someone who has no idea how video games are produced. You’re telling me one chick, alone, in her room, is cranking out games with levels of interactivity and graphical fidelity that make the Big Three look like Atari, circa 1982? What the hell are we talking about here, fellow-David? A game or a short film? Because any resclusive asshole can crank one of those out…plenty were doing it in 1999…

Then again, why let research get in the way of your metaphor, right? Right. So Allegra and Ted bond by the side of the road, after Ted digs the tooth/bullet out of Allegra’s shoulder with his pocket knife. Eager to check and see if the running’s damaged her “baby,” Allegra asks Ted to play thruough  eXistenZ. Problem: Ted’s incipient tomophobia’s prevented him from having a proper bio-port installation. Solution: an unregistered installation from the local Country Gas Station Attendant…named Gas…and played by Willem Dafoe in his best pre-Boondock Saints role, with the Creepiness turned up past Eleven.

Memo to Lars von Trier: THIS IS HOW YOU USE WILLEM DAFOE. You had me until the Cabin in the Woods you pretentious, depressive, Evil Dead-copying bastard.

(Sorry. But have you seen Antichrist? Shee-it…)

"Chaos does what now? Ha-ha...! Just kidding."
“Chaos does what now? Ha! Just kidding.”

If nothing else, I knew I liked this film the second Willem Dafoe picked up the giant pneumatic rivet gun/bio-port installation device. He installs Ted’s port, sure, but he also uses that as an excuse to immobilize Ted’s legs, the better to kill Allegra. There’s a bounty on her head, see. Dead or alive. Ted kills Gas with a smaller pneumatic rivet gun before we can find out who put the bounty out, but it doesn’t matter for a lot of reasons.

For one thing, we finally get to see eXistenZ once Ted and Allegra reach her console-fixing friend, Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm) at Kiri’s old ski resort. To hear Allegra tell it,

“The only way I can see if the game hasn’t been contaminated; if the pod isn’t going to be crippled for life by my negligence, is to play eXistenZ with someone friendly. Are you friendly, or are you not?”

Friendly enough to let Allegra plug an umbilical cord into his new spine-anus, it seems. After lubing it up, of course. The bulk of the movie takes place inside Allegra’s game. Its “design” makes me think Cronenberg actually did do his research at some point. The “levels” are (with one exception) claustrophobic interiors full of gross stuff. Non-playable characters go into loops if you don’t feed them the right lines of dialogue at the right time (and say their name so they know you’re talking to them, the gamepod version of “Press X to Advance the Plot”). Transitions are abrupt, no matter how smooth they might feel from Ted’s perspective. And the “story,” as such, casts Ted and Allegra as “Realist” freedom fighters aligned with the thick-accented Yevgeny Nourish (Don McKellar) to destroy gamepod-designing corporations.

"Time to strike a blow against the fascist pig-fuckers of Amerika. Tee-hee!"
“Time to strike a blow against the fascist pig-fuckers of Amerika. Tee-hee!”

This could reflect the probably-conscious anti-corporatist themes that run through our world’s game industry, even up top in the Triple-A sweat shops that pass themselves off as “design studios.” Or it could just be Cronenberg’s own bias shinning through. Either way, this kind of role-within-a-role reality warping is exactly what you’d expect from a film named after its own VR game. This is Cronenberg’s Philip K. Dick film, and it has all the hallmarks of Dickian fiction.

1) The protagonist is a jerk.

And by “protagonist” I mean Allegra, since she’s the one calling all the shots. She’s the star game designer with a quiet kind of self-assurance that’s deftly down-played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Allegra’s intelligence, misanthropy, wit and superiority complex are all low key but obvious…especially when placed next to Ted Pikul. She knows who she is and spends the whole film steamrolling Ted in order to get what she wants. And he takes it, because he’s

2) The Authorial Self-Insertion Character.

And in this, Jude Law outshines a thousand suns with his creepy-good, spot-on David Cronenberg impression. Now that I’ve seen Our Director in Nightbreed, Law’s performance is even creepier. I don’t know how Cronenberg could stand it. Must’ve been like two months of filming himself in a funhouse mirror that somehow made him younger, more handsome, and more English. Without this – the best celebrity-imitation since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Ted would be your standard, fish-out-of-water, Cronenbergian hero. With it, Law elevates himself to the level of Goldblum and Woods.  Not that Gattica didn’t already do that, but still…

"Mmm-mmm. Them's good licking."
“Mmm-mmm. Them’s good licking.”

3) The Evil Corporations that Control Everything in this Dystopian Near-Future. (Just like in real life…not that you care. Football’s on, am I right?)

Ted and Allegra work for Antenna. Their competitors, Cortical Systematics, are the first suspects on Our Heroes’ list of People Who Might Want Allegra Dead. By the end of the film we’ll hear of a third megacorp, PilgrImage, but that’s not nearly as important as the label on Our Heroes’ bag of on-the-run fast food: Perky Pats

“Perky Pats” is a reference to Dick’s Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a 1964 novel about a dystopian sci-fi future where inhabitants of those off-world colonies the Blade Runner blimps blabbed on about take drugs to relieve the everyday stress of their shitty colonial lives. At the start of the novel, the most popular drug on the market is Can-D. Can-D (not to be confused…or maybe it should be confused…with Substance D from A Scanner Darkly) induces an interactive group hallucination in its users, allowing a room full of colonists to share in what we might as well call a co-op video game of the mind.

I mention this so you won’t be like the guy in the test group, who probably echos every idiot who ever attended a Cronenberg film’s test-screening.

“The twists and turns at the end made my head spin. Maybe there was too many, too fast to absorb.”

Yeah, fuck him if he can’t keep up. Me, I’m leaning more toward Christopher Eccleston’s assessment,

“I thought the character was boring.”

"...it's not touched by any of these three, the evil, negative trinity of alienation, blurred reality, and despair that Eldritch brought back with him from Proxima. Or rather from the space between."
“…it’s not touched by any of these three, the evil, negative trinity of alienation, blurred reality, and despair that Eldritch brought back with him from Proxima. Or rather from the space between.”

Make that noun plural and you’ve got a complaint you could lobby against most Cronenberg characters. Except this time the real twist is (and, no, this isn’t really a spoiler, so I’m not going to put up any alerts here – grow up) that flatness, too, is purposeful.

People who dismiss stuff like Inception or Nightmare on Elm Street with lines like “why should I care? Everything takes place in a dream world anyway” need to take a look at this. eXistenZ is one of the few films where that criticism might actually be valid. This is also the only late-90s horror movie I still feel comfortable calling “meta,” “post-modern” or “self-reflexive,” because those are literal descriptors of it, rather than pretentious nouns I attach to it to cover up my critical failings. It’s a movie about a game that basically drops you into a bad movie so transparent, even Allegra scoffs at it at one point:

“Our characters are obviously supposed to jump on each other. This was probably a pathetically mechanical attempt to highten the emotional tension of the next game sequence.”

Again, replace “game” with “film” and the movie’s doing my job for me. Some movies are critic-proof. This movie’s its own best critic.

Ted: We’re both stumbling around together in this unformed world, whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don’t understand.

Allegra: Sounds like my game alright.

Ted: That sounds like a game that’s not gonna be easy to market.

Allegra: But it’s a game everybody’s already playing.

And, just so you know I'm not shitting you, here's a two-headed lizard.
And, just so you know I’m not shitting you, here’s a two-headed lizard.

I get the clear sense Cronenberg transcribed that exchanged from memory. That, by this point in his career, he’d endured so many conversations just like it he decided to build an entire film out of them. I can see this film as Croneneberg’s skewering of, not video games – he doesn’t care about them any more than he cared about TV in 1982 – but of the entertainment-industrial complex that produces them.

eXistenZ takes place in a world apparently so far gone, everyone’s taken up VR fiddling while they wait for the damn thing to burn down. Except for the resistance fighters…but we all know how noble they are thanks to Videodrome, don’t we?

And eXistenZ invites comparisons to Videodrome more than any other film. That’s certainly less of an apples-and-oranges than comparing it to The Matrix. So-called “normal” critics did that in 1999 because so-called “normal” critics can’t remember past the last SF film they saw. Manos only knows how they manage to differentiate between each year’s crop of Boring Indy Chamber Dramas. eXistenZ is a Boring Indy Chamber Drama set in a video game Of The Future. It begins with assassination attempts and ends with a twist. But don’t worry: Sixth Sense wouldn’t make Shyamalan’s name an adjective until four months later, so it’s the good kind of twist.

These USB 9s are really temperamental.

Like, Videodrome, eXistenZ is a creepy, unnerving film full of great performances and excellent effects that go straight for the gross out. It’s not nearly as engaging or interesting or timeless as its older brother, but it’s very much Cronenberg giving us exactly what we’re programed to expect. You can’t help but feel he’s treading over ground he stamped flat in the 80s…but why shouldn’t he? After all, that’s done Stephen King nothing but favors.

eXistenZ is a weird little film that I’m not quite sure I trust…but I certainly recommend it for its cast, its world-building, and Willem Dafoe’s face.


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