The movie opens with the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) writing a title on a chalkboard: “eXistenZ. Written like this. One word. Small e. capital X, capital Z.” A virtual reality game, led by the designer itself, goes violent and wrong. As she and her companion flee assassins and death, their exploration within the game itself soon blurs the lines between game and reality.
Welcome to eXistenZ.
In the late 1990’s, the idea of virtual worlds and levels of reality in relation to our own led to three movies 1999. The Thirteenth Floor explored the mystery of the murder of a man who had managed to create a computer reproduction of the world and inhabitants of 1930’s Los Angeles, only for his protege to discover that his *own* world was a simulation. The Matrix, a small movie starring Carrie-Ann Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Laurence Fishburne, explored a theme that you might well have heard of. And then there was eXistenZ, created by David Cronenberg. At this period in his career, Cronenberg had explored the grotesque, the transformative and the trangressive before (c.f. The Fly, Videodrome, Crash). In eXistenZ, Cronenberg brings those ideas into an even more twisted universe.
“I’m marked for death, and they put me on the run with a P.R. nerd!”
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Geller, a reclusive and shy game designer who would be happier being locked in a room designing games without having to show them to anyone. Events at the test enclave spiral out of control, however, and an assassin soon puts her on the run with Jude Law’s Ted Pikul. Ted is not a bodyguard, but rather a Marketing Trainee, one who has never played one of Geller’s virtual reality games. That is something that isn’t going to last…
“You have to play the game, to find out why you are playing the game.”
Sure. the movie explores gamer culture, obsessions, and fears in a way that feels as relevant now as it did back then. How games relate with the real world is a major concern and theme of the movie. How fans interact with a game, the ethics of game companies…one can’t help but think of GamerGate when watching this film these days. Beyond those contemporary concerns, looking deeper at this movie reveals delights that make the movie timeless and endlessly watchable. The mere fact that the movie features a female protagonist (and done without fuss, pointing at it, or damseling her at any point) is a strong point in its favor.
“I told you, Landry. We’ve become glorified veterinarians.”
The movie also features a lot of excellent actors in small roles. William DeFoe as Gas. Ian Holm as Kiri Vinokur. Don McKellar as Yevgeny Nourish. I love the character names in this movie so much, from the strangely mundane to the unusual; the off-reality names sound like they should be from our world, and yet aren’t, somehow. The actors seem to be uniformly loving their small roles in the film. There are lots of one scene wonders in the film.
“New ports are sometimes a bit…tight. Wouldn’t want to hurt ya.”
Then, there are the Cronenberg touches that mark this movie as representative of his work of the period. Biological grotesques ranging from creatures to weapons. Imagery of penetration, sex and birth are rife throughout the film. The virtual reality of the game in this world is contained within a biological machine that is connected to a “bioport” in the back of the user by means of an “umbi-cord”. The umbicord looks very much like an umbilical cord, and the movie explicitly uses birth and child language throughout. The fact that Jude Law’s Ted Pikul is the one that gets a first penetration, losing his ‘virginity’ in terms of being introduced to games, is a nice bit of gender reversal, too. People who have problems with a little body horror (okay more than a little) probably won’t like eXistenZ.
“We’re here, D’Arcy Nader, and that’s all that matters.”
And once you have seen the movie and know its plot and secrets and revelations, watching the movie a second (or, um, thirtieth) time is a revelatory experience. Watching the roles and seeing how they fit in with the nature of the movie and the characters reveals levels of subtlety that show that sometimes stilted or strangely framed conversations, character bits and setting bits holistically make sense in the context of what’s going on.
“And you, you are new to Trout Farm?”
eXistenZ was one of the first DVDs I ever purchased and remains one of my favorite movies. Watching it always brings me joy.