Saturday Editor’s Pick: eXistenZ (1999)

by on February 4, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Feb 11 at 6:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


It’s the final stretch of the complete Cronenberg retro at MOMI, which we’ve been celebrating every weekend here at Alt Screen. Nathan Lee brings readers up to date on the director’s career in one of the only pieces of publicity on the series.
As Ron Wells declared for Film Threat, “Yaaaay! Our crazy uncle Dave from Canada is back!” eXistenZ was viewed as a return of sorts to Cronenberg’s low-budget genre roots, and also a summation of his greatest themes and preoccupations.


Jim Ridley for Nashville Scene:

It’s no longer enough for action movies to be amusement. Now they have to be amusement parks as well. They’re blurbed as “thrill rides” and “roller coasters,” and the more they follow the basic pattern of your average Nintendo game, the more highly they’re touted. It was considered a breakthrough a few years back when a studio tested “interactive” movies, which gave the illusion of choice by letting audiences pick from different (fixed) outcomes. Now, what would really be interactive would be for someone to say screw the movie and take a pickax to the screen–if not to the moviemakers themselves. And if you push audiences far enough, removing just enough of their sense of the familiar, they just might do it: All it takes is crossing the line from safe entertainment into uncontrollable chaos.

This distinction has haunted the work of director David Cronenberg for the last 20 years. In his latest film, the sense-deranging thriller eXistenZ, the potential for chaos exists at every turn–as befits a vision in which reality is manufactured, flesh fuses with metal, and organic guns shoot human teeth.



Ridley continues:

eXistenZ is a Cronenberg career summation organized along the theme of interaction–not just between player and game, but between viewer and art. Once inside eXistenZ, Allegra and company pause to note the triteness of their dialogue, the inadequacy of their characters. You get the feeling the movie’s eyeing you for a reaction. Consequently, the movie plays tricks on what audiences want and expect from pop entertainment, be it a video game or a sci-fi thriller. Want blood? Cronenberg provides the requisite gory violence, only in such an arbitrary way it’s exposed as shameless yahoo-pandering. Want a rational narrative? Cronenberg makes leaps of logic, character, and setting so baffling that they don’t become clear until the end. Even then, the final outcome is so devious you’ll sit poking yourself to make sure you won’t disappear with the click of the projector. Only the dullest of brains could fail to interact with this gale-force mindfuck. Still, Cronenberg has frequently contended with the dullest of brains. The writer-director has said the idea for eXistenZ came from the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, whose fiction provoked a potentially lethal real-world backlash. But the movie’s “realists” could stand for all the pundits who point to scary movies and Sega whenever inexplicable real-life violence erupts. Even our president apparently sees no contradiction in chastising Hollywood mayhem, even as he OKs bombing the hell out of the Balkans. Subversive and sneakily funny, eXistenZ operates on just such levels of irony.



Chris Rodley introduces a must-read interview with Cronenberg, for Sight & Sound:

eXistenZ. It’s new. And it’s here. It’s a virtual-reality game that’s almost indistinguishable from lived experience and it’s also the new movie from David Cronenberg. What’s more, it’s the first wholly original creation from the director since Videodrome (1982) – the film his legions of fans regard as his quintessential work because it most effectively captures the alarming nature of the cinema’s invasion of the passive self. eXistenZ is Videodrome’s inverse twin, in which the active self invades cinema.
Cronenberg works this game/movie connection into a metaphor so effective that as soon as eXistenZ is over you feel the need to ‘play’ the film again to understand its rules more fully, certain you must have missed something. In that sense the effect is like seeing Verbal Kint limping then walking briskly away at the end of The Usual Suspects and wanting to revisit all the prompts on the cop’s bulletin board that he used to garnish his tall tale of Kaysser Soze. As one might expect from Cronenberg, eXistenZ fuses all the components of cinema – storytelling, acting, production design, sound, images, music – to play with the viewer at the same time as representing the game to them. But what makes eXistenZ potentially dangerous is its philosophic basis. Like reality, it can bite. Literally. It’s a virtual-reality game. And it’s a movie.



Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

eXistenZ is a virtual reality game where players, their nervous systems linked to a techno-biological pod via a plug in the spinal column, enter hallucinatory worlds/stories fuelled by their fears, needs and desires. At the game’s launch, cultish, controversial creator Allegra (Leigh) survives an assassination attempt by an anti-games fanatic. Fleeing from a ‘fatwa’ with the game company’s trainee marketing man Ted (Law), she soon persuades him to join her in playing her invention, both to assess the damage done to her pod, and to share the vicarious pleasures to which she’s addicted. But how can they tell which of the bizarre scenarios they find themselves in is imagined or real? And do they have any control over them? While weaving fresh variations on familiar Cronenberg themes, the film also proffers intriguing metaphors about the role of the artist in a consumer-driven world, and the ambivalent effects of fetishised, thrill-based entertainment. Most welcome, however, is the playful wit – unprecedented for Cronenberg – and the pacy, tortuous narrative, a series of Chinese boxes which leave fugitives and viewers alike wondering where in hell they are and what could possibly happen next. Dark, delirious fun.


Lisa Alspector for the Chicago Reader:

Director David Cronenberg returns to form with this update of his 1983 Videodrome. This time the self-reflexive examination is of virtual-reality games, and it makes full use of the similarities in different modes of vicarious experience, including narrative filmmaking.There are no easy correspondences in this barely allegorical allegory about how we may have become desensitized to violence. Audaciously combining conviction and childish humor, this SF thriller reminds us that the distinction between the tangible and the intangible may be frighteningly arbitrary—an idea that’s made too scary ever to seem trivial, no matter how silly things get.


Kevin Thomas says the film accommodates both the intellectually curious and the lazy. For the Los Angeles Times:

With “eXistenZ” David Cronenberg, Canada’s master of the macabre, envisions a near-future in which virtual reality games will have become so perfected that their players may no longer be able to tell whether they’re in a game or in real life. Cronenberg is not trying for a profound cautionary tale, but a provocative entertainment that allows him free range with his unique, darkly funny and disturbing vision. The Cronenberg trademarks are here in full force, including an outrageous sexual suggestiveness in his bizarre special effects.
Sci-fi fantasy/horror doesn’t get more sophisticated than “eXistenZ,” yet while the film invites speculation, it doesn’t require it. As cerebral as “eXistenZ” is, it’s nevertheless easy to go along for the ride, just for fun, as you would “Scream,” and be rewarded with the stunning kind of payoff all thrillers should deliver regardless of their level of aspiration.

Mike D’Angelo analyzes a scene he considers “a surrealistic, dream-haunting gesture for the ages,” for The Onion AV Club.
Scott Tobias, also for The AV Club:

Perhaps the key reason Canadian director David Cronenberg has remained the most intelligent and effective horror stylist of his generation is that his stories, however outrageous and gruesome, are often just a hairsbreadth from the everyday. eXistenZ, his clever and witty take on virtual reality, is built on the not-altogether-implausible premise that if a video-game system is cool enough, users will gladly have it plugged into their spinal cords. In the near future, players have “Bioports” installed in the small of their back and “UmbyCords” attaching them to an organic “game pod” made from synthetic DNA and animal matter. Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as the world’s premier high-tech game designer, but the title creation has caused extremists (and competitors) to place a $5 million fatwa on her head. Cronenberg was inspired by Salman Rushdie’s plight, and the comparison is apt: Whereas Rushdie’s Satanic Verses threatened to undermine a belief system, Leigh’s invention undermines all belief systems, as it constructs an entirely new, convincing reality of its own. Though Cronenberg makes some creepy insinuations, eXistenZ is more effective as a black comedy than as a visceral shocker. Video-game addicts will appreciate the kinks of the interactive universe, such as characters looping their actions until they get the correct user response or graphic landscapes (a trout farm, a drab Chinese restaurant) that don’t live up to their billing. eXistenZ is a provocative entry in a recent trend of paranoid thrillers—including The Matrix, Dark City, and The Game—that view reality as an elaborately orchestrated joke.


Chris Chang writes a love letter to Jennifer Jason Leigh for Film Comment (May/June 2002):

Madness and creativity have always been common bedfellows, which brings to mind some of the sanest conversations I’ve ever had with a director (in this case, David Cronenberg) and an actor (Leigh). The subject was, of course, eXistenZ. “It’s the dream of every red-blooded Canadian boy to give red-blooded American girls new orifices,” he explained. His admiration was crystal clear: “I had my eyes on her for some time,” he says. “Tough. Unusual. Not afraid to do strange things. When we started talking she was already working herself into the role. She was acting like a combination computer nerd/goddess.” How did he go about establishing her relationship with an inanimate object? “It’s not inanimate. It moves! And it’s Jennifer who animates it. She invested it with life. The dozen or so behind-the-scenes operators gave it movement; she gave it love.” The FIX crew supplied her with a pod to take home, so actor and object could get to know each other better. I asked Cronenberg if she slept with it. “I assume so,” he said, matter of factly. Talking to both the director and Leigh about eXistenZ was as unnerving as watching the film-yet they both act as if it was the most natural of scenarios. I asked Leigh where the pod was now. “It’s in a box in L.A.” It probably needs attention, I suggested, starting to get into it. “It’s fine,” she assured me.


Evan Waters for Cinema Viewfinder:

Cronenberg has yet to make an outright comedy, but eXistenZ comes damn close. For once he allows the weirdness of his ideas to slide over into the realm of “a little goofy,” and since Ted is a neophyte he gets to act with logical disgust to the idea of people having holes opened at the smalls of their backs to allow connection to fleshy breathing creatures that are also like computer drives and game consoles. The sexual implications of the bioport process (and the ports themselves) aren’t overlooked, and fun is had with that as well. There’s a deliberate corniness to a lot of the proceedings, which doesn’t undermine their believability so much as make us think the entire world is skewed. Despite being set in the near future, eXistenZ avoids almost all the usual visual cyberpunk cliches. It’s set almost entirely in the countryside, among old buildings, and while I’m sure budget was a factor in this decision, it contributes to the film’s low-key tone.



Ron Blackwelder talks to Cronenberg for Spliced:

You originally wrote “eXistenZ” three years ago. I imagine you had to make changes to update the technology, since such things change so rapidly.

That didn’t change. The technology I sort of side-step in this movie. It’s the metaphor. It’s the drama and the meaning of it and all of that which is interesting to me.
We don’t have any computers in this movie. It’s a different technology. I’m certainly aware that the big chip makers have all done heavy, heavy research into using protein molecules as a basis of their chips, and protein molecules are the basis of organic life. I read an article recently about experiments done to try to use DNA strands as electrical wiring.
Since I see technology as being an extension of the human body, it’s inevitable that it should come home to roost. It just makes sense. I mean, I literally show that in the movie with the pod plugged into central nervous system.
Technology is us. There is no separation. It’s a pure expression of human creative will. It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the universe. I’m rather sure of that. But we’ll see if the spaceships come. And if it is at times dangerous and threatening, it is because we have within ourselves we have things within us that are dangerous, self-destructive and threatening, and this has expressed itself in various ways through out technology.
(Modern technology is) more than an interface. We ARE it. We’ve absorbed it into our bodies. Our bodies, I think, are bio-chemically so different from the bodies of people like 1,000 years ago that I don’t even think we could mate with them. I think we might even be, in other words, a different species, we’re so different.
(This) technology, we absorb it, it weaves in and out of us, so it’s not really an interface in the same way people think about a screen or a face. It’s a lot more intimate than that.
Is that why in many of your films there’s some type of orifice through which a person is connecting?

Yeah. I mean, technology wants to be in our bodies, because it sort of came out of our bodies. In a crude way, that’s what I’m thinking. It wants to come home and that is its home. First of all, in the obvious ways — the eyes with binoculars, the ears with the telephone — technology had to be an advancement of powers we knew we had. Then it gets more elaborate and more distant from us. More abstract. But it still all emanates from us. It’s us.



J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

David Cronenberg is body horror’s acknowledged high muckety-muck, but his comic cyberthriller, eXistenZ, shows him in a relatively benign mind frame. Although scarcely unphilosophical in its implications, this assured riff on virtual-reality games—or rather, that primitive precursor, the motion picture—is almost buoyant in its creepiness and positively bejeweled in its disgust.
eXistenZ is unrelentingly blatant in its sexual entendres. It’s also a virtual anthology of Cronenberg tropes—truly organic biotechnology, the creation and penetration of new bodily orifices, the horror of disease, and the fear of surgery. Outfitted with a fully developed slang, the movie also features several props more than worthy of the various gallery installations which have recently been devoted to Cronenbergiana, most impressively a bone-and-cartilage revolver that fires human teeth.
Where Crash was austere and metallic, eXistenZ is a creative compost of barnyard slaughterhouse yuck. The image of a cut UmbyCord spurting blood over Allegra’s high-heeled pumps is only one of the images which have more to do with surrealism than science fiction. The movie’s controlled splatter and inspired puppetry peak when Ted finds himself gutting mutant amphibians on a game-pod factory assembly line. This gloppy slime is echoed by the nearby, woodlands Chinese restaurant offering a squeamish child’s worst nightmare of school-cafeteria chicken chow mein. “Free will is a fantasy in this little world of ours,” Ted complains after ordering the special and then giving in to a “game-urge” so violent it might have been lifted from Camus’s The Stranger. “It’s like real life,” Allegra explains. “There is just enough to make it interesting.”



Roger Ebert compares it to that other virtual reality movie of 1999, for the Chicago Sun-Times:

“eXistenZ” arrives a few weeks after “The Matrix,” another science-fiction movie about characters who find themselves inside a universe created by virtual reality. “The Matrix” is mainstream sci-fi, but “eXistenZ,” written by Cronenberg, is much stranger; it creates a world where organic and inorganic are not separate states, but kind of chummy. Consider the scene where an oil-stained grease monkey implants a bio-port in the hero, using a piece of equipment that seems designed to give a lube job to a PeterBilt.
Cronenberg’s film is as loaded with special effects as “The Matrix,” but they’re on a different scale. Many of his best effects are gooey, indescribable organic things, and some of the most memorable scenes involve characters eating things that surgeons handle with gloves on. He places his characters in a backwoods world that looks like it was ordered over the phone from L.L. Bean. Then he frames them with visuals where half the screen is a flat foreground that seems to push them toward us, while the other half is a diagonal sliding off alarmingly into the background.



Phillip Lopate for Film Comment (May/June 1999):

eXistenZ is a return to Cronenberg’s low-budget Toronto environs and hit-and-run, cheesy-elegant style. I like it. It’s a conceptual-horror B movie, and it keeps moving (a blessing, in Cronenberg’s case). There is cinema of character (Rohmer) and cinema of visual dream (Lynch). The first is generally what is taught in film schools; the second is often what the young flock to on their own. At its best, Cronenberg’s work has inhabited both camps. What makes eXistenZ so intriguing is that we are invited to follow a core of self in the two main leads, a continuity of personality that we can imagine we still see, in and around the character transformations brought on by the game. So, even at neo-Ted’s most thuggishly violent, blowing away a Chinese waiter, he still seems a trifle nerdish; and his reaction, that it’s just a game after all, shows he hasn’t toughened up at all. Allegra, for her part, retains a schoolmarmish annoyance at her partner’s slowness to adapt to the game, however “liberated” her costume.
The film is shot mostly at night: lots of bruised blues and greens, edge-of-town exteriors, gas stations, factory and town hall interiors. The city has been banished: horror is a small-town product. Though partly the child of the mating of sci-fi and film noir, as in Blade Runner, eXistenZ is also a road movie: the exasperated runaway pair recalls Hitchcock’s reluctant fugitive couples. “I need to play the game with someone friendly,” Allegra keeps saying. “Are you friendly?” It is a reasonable question, since all the characters around them keep shifting from friend to foe, ally to betrayer. Toward the end, eXistenZ becomes more a road movie in the manner of Godard’s Weekend, as chaos breaks out everywhere, fires are set, guerrilla armies battle each other.
One of the factions, lightly satirized, is something called “The Realist Underground” (Cronenberg’s critics?). They are dead set against games. Ought we to see the film itself as a warning about the disappearing line between reality and virtual reality? Or a brief for invention? (“L’imagination au pouvoir!” in the ’68 slogan.) Allegra is particularly sharp – and split – in her self-reflexive annoyance at the cliched turns the game plot takes. Even as she finds herself rubbing her body sexily against Ted, she mutters something like “This is obviously a cheap attempt to generate plot tension.” At such moments, the film wittily reflects not so much science fiction as the culture of screenwriting courses and rewrite meetings. The audience is invited along as insiders in the too-sophisticated game of keeping a screenplay “fresh.”

And Lopate reminds us of simple pleasures:

If I retain not much more than an image of Jennifer Jason Leigh fellating a bungee cord, then I am at least grateful for that.


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