eXistenZ(director/writer: David Cronenberg; cinematographer: Peter Sushitzky; editor: Ronald Sanders; cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh (Allegra Geller), Jude Law (Ted Pikul), Ian Holm (Kiri Vinokur), Don McKellar (Yevgeny Nourish), Sarah Polley (Merle),Willem Dafoe (Gas), Callum Keith Rennie (Hugo Carlaw), Kris Lemche (Noel Dichter); Runtime: 97; Miramax Films; 1999-Canada)
“Cronenberg needs more than ideas for his next film, he needs a good script and actors who are more suited for their roles.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This escapist movie is sponsored in part by Sega, influenced in part by the death threat on Indian author Salmun Rushdie, and it sure feels like a ’60s bad acid trip film. There are twelve virtual reality game players when the mock battle takes place between the dreaded realists and the creative ones. The film takes on the theme of fighting censorship and finding out who the real you is, through playing this video game. William Burroughs influenced Cronenberg with the idea that what you create as an artist becomes a living thing, it goes out into the world and has a life of its own but is still connected to you.
So far, so good.
Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the creator of the newest and most innovative virtual reality game, eXistenZ. It is pronounced with philosophical pretensions as “eggs is tense.” As the game starts, she is attacked by a realist with a gristle gun that is made of mammal flesh and bones and shoots human teeth instead of bullets. The security guard Ted Pikul (Jude) is really a marketing trainee from the company that sponsors the $38 million dollar game who comes to her rescue and they flee, prepared to trust no one from now on but only to take pleasure in the game they are in.
A game is only a game. And two heads are better than one. These could be some slogans for a game that has no explanation or purpose for its existence. You get to know about it only when you play it.
To play the game means you have to penetrate the body by means of bio ports, which are openings in the spine. They must be lubricated before being penetrated with ersatz umbilical cords being connected to “metaflesh game pods.” That’s a fleshy lump with several nipples, and it’s meant to be stroked by game players. These are obvious allusions to foreplay and sex in the game.
All this game stuff is really not that interesting to see. The two stars are only mildly diverting, arousing no particular warm feelings for their plight. Their aim is to provide suspense and a dark sense of humor, which they do on occasion. But they fail in achieving any depth in their characters; therefore, they are seen only as being the game figures they are portraying and no more.
The main supporting cast includes Willem DaFoe as Gas and Ian Holm as Kiri. Both in minor roles. Gas operates a gas station (natch!), where the fleeing couple stops to get Ted a bio port he needs to be in the game; his new pod will also help Allegra repair the pod she had damaged during the attack on her.
Dafoe, who claims to have had his life saved by Allegra’s game, must take credit for having the funniest line in the movie. It comes about when Ted asks, “Why do you still run a gas station?” He replies, “Only on the most pathetic level of reality.”
Kiri is a game character who talks with a thick European accent. As a scientist living in a remote skiing village, he will operate on Allegra’s diseased pod which is a result of Gas, unbeknownst to her, trying to ruin her pod for a rival game company. For Allegra, her pod is vital, as it holds the only formula to the game in it.
The film sinks downhill from here on. It becomes about squishy “mutated amphibians” and double-crosses by rival game company spies, and realists who feel threatened by the escapists. The characters act out who they are in the game, until they can’t tell if they are playing a game or if what is happening to them is real. Most of the action scenes take place in a trout farm and at a Chinese restaurant. But much of the story just didn’t add up and the virtual reality didn’t look so hot, either.
The only thing left to be accomplished was a surprise ending, and that comes as sure as there are taxes. The only thing is that the surprise ending really came too late too save the film and if you thought about it, it didn’t make sense; unless, you believe that the two best game players were ironically anti-gamers.
After a belated assassination when the game is supposedly over, the film ends on this conversation between the two game winners as Ted asks Allegra: “Are we still in the game?” And he goes on to say, “Tell me the truth, are we still in the game?”
Cronenberg needs more than ideas for his next film, he needs a good script and actors who are more suited for their roles. The biggest mistake was in the casting of Jude Law as a romantic hero. Even though he’s a fine actor, he didn’t have the charisma to pull that role off.
REVIEWED ON 6/14/99 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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