eXistenZ is director David Cronenberg‘s 1999 film that is his strangest and most disturbing yet. It was overshadowed during its release, but has picked up a bit of a cult fan-base since it was released on DVD.
A world-famous, celebrity virtual reality game designer named Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is unveiling a demonstration of her newest game at a private, focus group meeting. The game works off of a biological, non-sentient machine called a pod, which plugs into a bio-port, looking very much like an organic opening at the base of a person’s spine. Ted Pikul (Jude Law) is a marketing guy from the game’s company and when the game session is about to begin, a late-comer unveils a weapon made entirely from bone and which shoots teeth (thus rendering it invisible to metal detectors) and attempts to assassinate Geller, Pikul is the one who rushes her from the scene, injured, but alive and the two of them try to unravel what is going on and whether or not the game has survived the attack also.
The narrative is multilayered with each narrative being entered and exited as it each were a game, leaving the viewer confused as to which level is actually reality and which is a fantasy generated for them. So realistic has the game development become that groups of extremists view it as a threat to the human race akin to heroin; able to wrench people from reality and their own lives and let them exist in a fictional, but convincing fantasy for as long as they like and with such a setup, addiction is easy and very difficult to combat.
Cronenberg’s typical Luddite view towards technology has been a cornerstone of his work, but interestingly, eXistenZ is a bit of a departure from outright condemnation and combines with it very strong cyberpunk and science fiction themes. The predominant theme of the movie is where will our development of artificial realities stop and at what cost to ourselves? It asks whether we are willing to keep progressing without limits until we become unable to discern reality from the artificial environments we create; a kind of engineered schizophrenia that seems like it may be inevitable given how quickly technology is advancing and how little understanding those with the power to put into place limits on such advancement allows the development to continue without any hindrance or caution.
The film is aesthetically pleasing to the viewer and won a number of awards for editing, production design, and costume design. The sets and scenes are entirely convincing in the same way that the sets and scenes in other movies featuring artificially generated realities are convincing. It also reminds the viewer of the concept of lucid dreaming, whereby a person practices focus and attention to the point where they are able to consciously interact with, and control, their own dreams, for their own amusement.
eXistenZ is a fantastic movie from Cronenberg and the performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law are remarkable If not for 1999 being a year filled with huge hits, blockbusters and massively popular independent films, the title may be more familiar to the general public, but since it’s not, it’s a great film to recommend to others and I heartily recommend watching it, or rewatching it, as the case may be.