eXistenZ (United States/Canada/United Kingdom, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

eXistenZ, the latest from iconoclastic director David Cronenberg (Crash, Dead Ringers, The Fly), looks at the dangers of virtual reality. The movie seems to have been designed as a cautionary tale, and, as such, contains elements of pointed satire. Unfortunately, the production as a whole has a disjointed feel, and the flaw is compounded by several ill-advised casting decisions, a meandering middle act, and an ending that cheats the audience by employing the kind of plot twist that just about anyone can see coming from a mile away. Because of the potential of the idea and Cronenberg's reputation as a film maker, it's a real disappointment to watch eXistenZ fall apart the way it does.

eXistenZ also suffers from the distinction of being the weakest of three films, all released within a month's time, to toy with the line dividing reality from fantasy. Both The Matrix and Open Your Eyes do similar things to those that Cronenberg attempts, but with far greater success. Consequently, eXistenZ comes across like a wannabe toying in an arena where the real players have already displayed their superior skills.

The movie's opening is promising. We're introduced to Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the shy designer of a breakthrough virtual reality game called "eXistenZ" (pronounced like "existence" with the accents in all the wrong places). On this night, set some time in the near future, she is about to test the game with 12 randomly selected players chosen from a live audience. While their bio ports (holes in their lower backs that allow direct access to the spinal cord) are being connected to one of 12 "metaflesh game pods", Allegra describes eXistenZ as being a "whole new game system" that expands the concept of virtual reality. No sooner has she started the demonstration game, however, than shots ring out. A member of the audience, shouting gibberish and waving a bizarre gun, attempts to assassinate Allegra.

She is whisked out of harm's way by Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a marketing trainee for Antenna Research, the company that Allegra works for. Soon, the pair are on the run from persons unknown. To complicate matters, eXistenZ was damaged during the assassination attempt, and Allegra needs help entering the system and making sure that it's intact. When she decides that she can trust Ted, she enlists his aid, but there's a problem: he doesn't possess a bio port, so they have to find someone who can install one illegally. Their quest leads them to a strange corner gas station run by an oddball (Willem Dafoe) then to the hide-out of a scientist living in the woods (Ian Holm).

It's after the movie shifts to the world within eXistenZ that things start to crumble. Put simply, it's not a very compelling fake reality. There are lots of weird, squishy "mutated amphibians" running around, and much of the so-called action takes place in an old trout farm or at a Chinese restaurant. There are conspiracies and double-crosses, and the requisite confusion about what's authentic and what isn't. (When Allegra and Ted exit the game at one point, have they really departed, or is the game just making them - and us - think they've left?) By the time the film limps to the ending, we're expecting at least one of the climactic twists, and its obviousness leaves a bad taste. It probably would have been more interesting for Cronenberg not to employ such an transparent "surprise."

Casting is another problem. In presenting Allegra as an introvert who would rather immerse herself in eXistenZ than face the real world, the versatile Jennifer Jason Leigh is virtually the only actor to create a credible character. Jude Law (the "donor" in Gattaca), as Allegra's game-playing partner and potential lover, is bland - hardly the type of personality we want for a hero. Law may be a better actor than Keanu Reeves (who fulfilled a similar function in The Matrix), but, when it comes to screen presence, he's inferior. The gifted Ian Holm is saddled with a ridiculous Eastern European accent (it's so outlandish that the script jokes about it) and a miniscule role. Also criminally underused are Willem Dafoe and Sarah Polley (who can currently be seen in Go).

There's a lot of sexual imagery in the film, especially in the way that Cronenberg equates game playing with the sex act (the symbolism - of a plug being inserted into the bio port - is more than a little heavy-handed), and the superlative set design is an undeniable asset. However, while not exactly wasted, this production element could have been used in the service of a better-realized script. eXistenZ's overall message - presumably a warning about the addictive nature of games that draw players away from reality - isn't exactly new. In fact, the same ideas were presented in a more compelling and controversial fashion several years ago in the James Cameron/Katherine Bigelow collaboration, Strange Days. Cronenberg, who is known for pushing the envelope, shows surprising restraint here, which may be a mistake, since he fails to accomplish anything noteworthy with a premise that, at first glance, seems foolproof. While eXistenZ contains a few enjoyable sequences (most of which occur during the first 30 minutes - I liked the development of Allegra's character and the introduction of the "Corner Gas Station"), the overall impression is of a missed opportunity. Fans of the director will probably be divided about eXistenZ's merits and impact, but most everyone else will find this to be a meandering and pointless exercise in duping an audience.

eXistenZ (United States/Canada/United Kingdom, 1999)

Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1