CAPSULE: EXISTENZ (1999)

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PLOT: A game designer and a security officer flee violent sabotage during a virtual reality game demonstration and are thrust into increasingly bizarre and dangerous scenarios inside the virtual world.

Still from Existenz (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This movie is weird in a very obvious way, full of gross insect brunches and squishy scenes of body horror.  Since nothing less is expected from Cronenberg, however, eXistenZ simply remains a solid entry in the sci-fi/horror genre, but not one of the weirdest.

COMMENTS: It’s not difficult to imagine the comment section of a youtube upload of eXistenZ to be laden with the now-famous phrase “WTF did I just watch?”  If you were to present eXistenZ at a casual movie night with friends, then there would be no question that at least one person in the room would not-so-kindly ask for the movie to be turned off, and it’s probable that this would happen in the first twenty minutes. To its credit, eXistenZ reels in even mainstream viewers quickly, as the audience is desperate to find out just how the virtual video game will work (especially considering the game controllers look like alien sex toys from LV426). But Cronenberg sends the squares back to their cubicles when the characters Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) actually begin the game, which soon takes us from one “WTF?” moment to the next.  eXistenz is not a dream, nor is it the Matrix.  It hints at something dark within us, something ferociously organic and nasty, filled with bile and ooze and slime.

From the beginning, it appears that there is something vaguely sexual about the game.  During the opening sequence we see several adults–this is peculiar, since video games are assumed to appeal to a younger demographic–sit in wooden chairs and fondle their controllers, which are be blobs of gooey, elastic flesh.  As the game begins they squirm while sitting with eyes closed, and we are given a powerful image of human beings experiencing something sensationally fleshy. When Allegra (Leigh) is shot with a gun made of human teeth, she tells Pikul (Law, who was placed in charge of her safety) to pull over for “an intimate encounter”; we then cut to him holding a Swiss Army Knife and slicing into her flesh to remove the tooth. The sexual imagery reaches a peak when the game controllers are revealed to be biological organisms that plug directly into the spine via a lubricated bio-port.

Sidestepping the usual sci-fi entrapments of robotic laser fights and anti-gravity fight scenes, Cronenberg focuses on the complexity of the human body, desire, consciousness, and free will. There are moments when the characters are compelled to make certain decisions in the game in order to progress, and they must endure extreme discomfort (i.e. eating mutant frogs) to move forward. Cronenberg’s frequent jabs at philosophy are far from cliché, and with its powerful score the movie stimulates the curious mind holistically and sometimes aggressively, all the while maintaining an exhilarating sense of fun that comes from the wackiness of it all.  The two leads both give powerful performances, while some of the minor characters in the movie fall flat (Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe are typically intense but perhaps a bit over-the-top). The picture’s strength comes from its volatility.  Slimy fish guts, assassins, virtual games that run up a tab of 36 million dollars, and back-stabbing (literally and figuratively) wild-eyed gas station attendants make up the bulk of this wild romp through a world where games are hip, powerful, and significantly more important than reality itself.  The relevance of these ideas can’t be understated in a world where kids in China die from playing too much World of Warcraft.

eXistenZ is an underrated picture, with detractors arguing that its ideas are worn out and too similar to other sci-fi movies. There’s no doubt it stands in the shadow of Cronenberg’s masterpiece Videodrome, but eXistenZ is intriguing, suspenseful, and creative on its own terms.  It falls flat at times, especially when side characters are introduced, but whatever slump it rolls into is quickly saved by the bizarre plot progression, where characters change moods and motives at the drop of a hat in a setting that is at once alien and strikingly familiar. We experience what the characters are experiencing; we don’t know what the game means or if it even has an end.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In the hands of anyone else, the notion of computer game terrorists would be ludicrous, and even Cronenberg fails to explain their motives, using the film instead to indulge in surreal exercises of dream logic.”– Jamie Woolley, BBC (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “alex.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

4 thoughts on “CAPSULE: EXISTENZ (1999)”

  1. Really? A movie about fleshy “living” video game “systems” which have nipples and attach to your spine via an umbilical cord-like rope and features a gun made out of fish skin and bone which fires human teeth ISN’T weird enough to make the list??

    1. I was kind of surprised Ryan voted “no” on this one too. I haven’t seen eXistenZ but my main concern was that it was just an updated version of Videodrome for the video game generation. At any rate, readers will have a chance to affect the List, so if enough people vote for a particular title we’ll put it on regardless of our own initial judgements.

  2. Well, I’ve always felt this was a sort of “spiritual successor” to “Videodrome.” In fact, I’ve always wished Cronenberg would return to his roots and make a third part of this unofficial “trilogy” and perhaps make one commenting on…computers? The internet?

    Either way, I think this should definitely make the list. It’s not as weird as “Videodrome,” yes, but it’s still pretty out there.

    1. I know right? This one was a tough nut to crack. In conclusion: It’s some experimental sci-fi for sure, but its level of meta-fictional glee dampens the obviously deranged ideas.

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