eXistenZ (1999)

D: David Cronenberg
S: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law

Entertaining though slight comic sci-fi from David Cronenberg, a welcome if also disappointing shift in tone following Crash and M. Butterfly. Essentially, this is Videodrome for the Playstation generation, a vision of the near future where the war between realpolitik and escapism is being fought over video games (the film is partly sponsored by Sega). When ace designer Jennifer Jason Leigh road tests her latest creation, a fully immersive adventure game called eXistenZ (the spelling and pronouncing of which are explained to is in the opening scene by Christopher Eccelston (Elizabeth, Shallow Grave)), she is attacked by fanatical 'realists' whose opposition to the artificial realities she purveys takes the form of a death sentence (the plot was loosely inspired by the fatwa placed on Salman Rushdie in the wake of the publication of The Satanic Verses). With security guard Jude Law (Gattaca, Wilde) in tow, Leigh goes on the run, and attempts to find solace in the world of eXistenZ. Of course things take a turn for the bizarre when the game turns out to be about the game itself and the players find that they're the ones being played.

Videodrome has, in retrospect, become one of the keystone films of the postmodern era, a speculation upon ideas of artificial reality which also predicted the right-wing backlash against the democratisation of the media in the age of multiple-channel television. eXistenZ is Cronenberg's first original script since Videodrome, and it seems that his ideas have not advanced since then. The film treads much the same territory, even down to its emphasis on the penetration of the male body (game players have 'bio-ports' which appear line vaginal/anal tissue which must be lubricated before being penetrated with ersatz umbilical cords connect them to the biologically-grown game apparatus). It plays upon the constant shifting of the boundaries of reality in what amounts to a tongue-in-cheek shaggy dog story, and has a much more evident sense of humour (a fast food chain is called 'Perky Pat', after Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, a remark to the effect the characters might find what they seek in a countryside gas station is followed by their arrival at one called 'Countryside Gas Station' (or something of the sort)), but it's much the same thing.

Leigh and Law play it straight, though neither is a compelling character in what amounts to a black comedy which laughs at itself. The supporting cast includes Willem DaFoe and Ian Holm, and there is of course a wealth of gloopy, disgusting special effects to amuse the punters whose jollies depend upon such things. None of it is particularly affecting though, and the film never comes close to drawing the viewer in. eXistenZ is not The New Flesh, but a sort of synthetic videogame version of it, and Cronenberg is aware of this. For some the light touch might excuse its thematic and imaginative shortcomings, and to a certain extent it is possible to let it go. On another level though it is sad to see that all that time spent in the company of writers like William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard has not deepened Cronenberg's approach to his own material. eXistenZ is probably the least challenging film he has ever directed. Even though its high production values and evident directorial maturity make it seem more accomplished than earlier works like Shivers and Rabid, it is ultimately far less interesting.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.