Tag Archives: Virtual Reality

CAPSULE: EXISTENZ (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , ,

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.)

LIST CANDIDATE: WORLD ON A WIRE (1973)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

FEATURING: Klaus Löwitsch, Mascha Rabben, , Karl-Heinz Vosgerau

PLOT: A computer programmer assigned to run a virtual reality world after his superior goes insane finds himself paranoid about the motives of his government bosses, and wonders if someone else might ultimately be behind the project.
Still from World on a Wire (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: World on a Wire is hard science fiction, but with a seriously disorienting edge. On the surface it’s ultra-rational, but it peers into a disintegrating world existing underneath ours, undermining our sense of reality.

COMMENTS: The plot twist of World on a Wire won’t shock modern audiences, but that hardly matters. The movie’s sanity-questioning themes may have been shopworn even in 1973, but rarely have they been delivered with such depth and artistry. Besides, the “big revelation” happens at the end of Part I, the midpoint of this three and a half hour epic, leaving us with another entire movie to develop the consequences. Wire‘s double length provides ample time to explore and flesh out an expansive cast of characters, including two separate love interests for our paranoid protagonist: Eva, the daughter of his deceased superior, and Gloria, his statuesque, almost impossibly blond and voluptuous secretary. The plot sets up computer scientist Fred Stiller as a Socrates figure, running about the virtual agora questioning the nature of reality, raising uncomfortable doubts that are no more welcome in the world of World on a Wire than they were in ancient Athens. The powers that be would like to assure that Stiller meets the same fate as the Greek gadfly, but the scientist isn’t willing to go quietly. The film is visually advanced for television, with arty angles and elaborate 360 degree tracking shots. The wide lapels on plaid sports jackets belie the film’s 1970s origins, but the sets have a gleaming metallic modernism that makes them timeless. Mirrors and distorting lenses are everywhere to reinforce the sense of doubling and reflected realities. Sonically, the movie challenges the audience with abrasive, distressing music queues suggesting a rupturing synthetic reality: sometimes, it sounds like Fassbinder’s recorded a classical orchestra soldiering on while being attacked by an ever-growing swarm of electronic bees, and at other times like he’s scraping a theremin across a chalkboard. Although the visual and audio techniques here express the ontological ambiguity of Stiller’s predicament, a number of subtle and not-so-subtle surreal touches bring across the point as effectively. Most of the performances have a detached and stilted quality, with minor characters found staring out into space blankly when not engaged in direct dialogue. The entertainment venues in this world are genuinely peculiar, including a party at an indoor pool with aquatic male gymnasts, a bar where topless Africans dance to fado ballads, and a shadow-theater cabaret with waiters in whiteface and shirtless chefs. Of course, none of those sequences are as odd as the moment when Stiller asks a woman on the street for a light, and a load of bricks suddenly falls from the sky and buries her. That early sequence, a weirdly blasé tragedy, rates as World‘s strangest scene, but at the time Stiller is too immersed in his own reality to recognize how bizarre it is. He still has another two hours of movie to develop his slow-dawning epiphany about just how weird the world around him has become. It takes time to fully explore this World on a Wire, but the trip down this rabbit hole is well worth it.

World on a Wire was based on Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 novel “Simulacron-3,” which was also adapted by Hollywood in 1999 as The Thirteenth Floor. Wire was only broadcast on German television twice and never released theatrically during Fassbinder’s lifetime. The Fassbinder Foundation saved the movie from its undeserved obscurity, restoring the lost classic and releasing it to film festivals in 2010. The Criterion Collection followed with a DVD/Blu-ray release in 2012.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The full feature runs close the three and a half hours and is fraught with bizarre formal elements. What separates it from the aforementioned high-concept movies is the utter weirdness that is imbued throughout.”–Zachary Goldbaum, “Brightest Young Things” (theatrical re-release)

CAPSULE: @SUICIDEROOM (2011)

Sala Samobójców, AKA Suicide Room

DIRECTED BY: Jan Komasa

FEATURING: Jakub Gierszal, Agata Kulesza, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Roma Gasiorowska-Zurawska

PLOT: When a spoiled rich boy is mocked after an embarrassing high school incident publicly

Still from @suicide room (2011)

reveals his homosexual desires, he retreats into a virtual world, a community called “suicide room” full of teens trying to work up the courage to kill themselves.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The hallucinatory virtual reality episodes that look like video captures from “Sims 3: Depressed Emo Kid Expansion Pack” add a novelty and curiosity factor, but @suicideroom isn’t weird at its core: it’s an earnest look at teen depression and suicide.

COMMENTS: Call it a gimmick if you must, but @suicideroom‘s animated sequences are the drawing card rather than a distraction in this teen depression drama. Without the virtual reality wrinkle, this Polish import would play a bit like a suicide-prevention after-school special with a budget, complete with almost comically uninvolved, clueless parents and an appropriately over-emoting tortured teen. The backstory is simple enough. Dominik is handsome, popular and privileged. He’s already got a date for the prom and a private chauffeur supplied by his absentee parents. He’s got everything a slightly-Bieberish looking kid could want, and is the last guy in his class who you’d expect to suffer from depression—but after a male-on-male dare-kiss goes viral, he quickly goes from heartthrob to pariah. And here’s where things get a little strange. Dominik retreats to his room, where after thrashing about a bit and beating his mattress in despair, a chat window pops up on his laptop and invites him to join an online community. After personalizing his avatar he finds himself set loose in an impossibly detailed virtual nightclub, chasing a comely toon with pink hair; they go to video chat and he meets Sylwia, a weepy blonde shut-in wearing a plastic mask who is also the proprietress of the “Suicide Room.” Sylwia is both a character in the real-life story and a symbol of the romantic allure of youthful melancholia; there is a mysterious, allegorical feel to her unlikely online recruitment/seduction of Dominik. Once Dominik is initiated into the secret suicide society, any pretense that this is a real virtual community disappears; the impossibly fluid and responsive world of Suicide Room follows the rules of an animated cartoon, not the clunky mechanics of online community like World of Warcraft. Characters fight ridiculously complicated anime-inspired duels seen through multiple angles and split-screens, sail over oceans of polygonal waves, and turn into howling banshees when they get angry. What we see is the online world as embellished by Dominik’s imagination, a wired existence that’s realer and more appealing to him than the harsh realities of the world outside his door. The stylistic strategy could be described either as “virtual magical realism” or “digital Expressionism.” Whatever you call it, it may be in fact too successful, since whenever we’re following Dominik’s “real” story we’re always looking forward to our next trip inside the dreamlike magical box for a peek at what the electronic pixies have been up to in our absence. Unfortunately, nothing good can last, and Dominik’s return to the real world when his Internet is pulled ends in tragedy, and with a phone number for a suicide prevention hotline. It’s not entirely clear whether the director means to criticize social media for encouraging isolation from the real world and allowing the spread of dangerous ideas like suicide-promotion support groups, or whether its prominence in the story simply reflects teen reality at this point in history. Regardless, such musings add a bit more interest to this well-intentioned, semi-successful, slightly odd drama that may resonate with the younger crowd.

While it’s a worthwhile watch, @suicideroom is a tough movie to market outside of its native Poland. In the U.S.A., emo went out of style in November 2011, exactly one year after silly bandz, and even the most depressed American teenager would watch that Katy Perry movie before tuning in to a subtitled Polish film with opera on the soundtrack.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

…helmer-writer Jan Komasa overplays his hand… ultimately creating an unsympathetic protagonist whose fate doesn’t inspire much interest… Replete with bizarre avatars, the pic’s slick animated segments convey the feeling of being inside an online sword-and-sorcery game.”–Alissa Simon, Variety (contemporaneous)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: CROWLEY [AKA CHEMICAL WEDDING] (2008)

AKA:  Crowley. This film is referred to as Chemical Wedding in film databases and in the U.K., and Crowley in the U.S.A.   We have used the title Crowley in this review, despite Chemical Wedding being perhaps the more “correct” title.

NOTE: Those interested in the learning more about the roguish Aleister Crowley will want to read the Appendix to this post, which gives background on the occultist and his belief system.

DIRECTED BY: Julian Doyle

FEATURING:  Simon Callow, Kal Weber, Lucy Cudden, Paul McDowell, Jud Charlton John Shrapnel, and Terence Bayler

PLOT: Aleister Crowley comes back to life and goes on a murderous rampage, ultimately warping the universal space-time continuum.



WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Crowley is a strange mix of serous sci-fi elements and over-the-top characterizations of a notorious and eccentric historical figure.  Combined with a bizarre story of reincarnation, quantum physics and parallel universes, it’s an occult film that transcends the norms of the genre, providing a viewing experience that is funny, intriguing and peculiar all at once.

COMMENTS Crowley is an imaginative and clever occult science fiction film.  It is partly serious, partly campy, but not in a way that is meant to be silly or cheap.  It is also witty and ribald.  Well researched, the film draws its premise partly from the story of maverick rocket physicist and eccentric black arts follower, Jack Parsons (see Appendix).  Mixing fact with fancy, Crowley is a fast paced, multi-genre, satirical thriller.  Tawdry yet brainy, the movie proffers an oddball, but sophisticated mix of historical fact, occult fantasy and hardcore science fiction.  Based on the infamous “wickedest man in the world,” master occultist Aleister Crowley, this film will entertain, amuse, and perhaps enthrall the unconventional viewer.  Reflexively, it is sure to provoke and offend the mainstream audience.

In the present day, a Cal Tech scientist, Dr. Joshua Mathers (Weber) invents a sinister computerized, virtual reality space-time simulator in which the user steps into a creepy full body immersion suit.  Mathers conducts experiments with a joint scientific team at Cambridge.  There the virtual reality device is coupled with “Z93”, the most powerful, superconductor computer in the world.  It works!  It works too well.

Mathers’s rapaciously amoral assistant, Neberg (Charleton), surreptitiously introduces a Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: CROWLEY [AKA CHEMICAL WEDDING] (2008)