(Dimension) “I actually think there's an element of psychosis involved here.” When David Cronenberg's eXistenZ came out in 1999, it sort of got lost in the flood of reality-warping stories that suffused the cultural consciousness at the end of the Twentieth Century. Consider that two other highly similar films came out that same year – The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor – and that Dark City and The Truman Show were released only a year before. Filmmakers seemed obsessed with emerging virtual-reality technologies, simulated worlds, and their implications for the human mind. In terms of financial success, The Matrix whomped them all, becoming a smash hit with its slick visual style and powerful kung-fu grip; but eXistenZ is in it for the long haul, offering a subtle, nightmarish, still-relevant vision of the future that has true philosophical bite.
Anyone who's seen a Cronenberg film knows two things: they're often gloriously gruesome tales penned by Cronenberg himself, and they're phenomenally assured exercises in tension and atmosphere. Both of these are true of eXistenZ. It's the story of Ted Pikul (Jude Law), nerdy and self-conscious marketing intern for Antenna Research, and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the company's star game designer. After a failed assassination attempt by a “Realist” agitator, the two flee across the countryside with the only copy of Allegra's new game eXistenZ. In order to verify that Antenna's 38-million-dollar investment hasn't been damaged, they must port into the gameworld and test its architecture.
Jude Law was just breaking into international stardom when eXistenZ debuted, and the film shows why he became a household name. He alternates effortlessly between the nervous, nerdy Ted and his more dashing, artificially confident game persona. He somehow captures every nuance of a hesitantly curious man experiencing an entirely new reality. Leigh matches him every step of the way as the kinky, sensually obsessed Allegra. It's up to her to introduce Ted – and the viewer – to the details of this bizarre realm, and she pulls it off with natural grace.
Cronenberg puts these two through a lot: they start in a strange near-future world with unrecognizable bio-mechanical technology, then explore a false and stilted world from Allegra's imagination, then enter a glitchy game-within-a-game. They have unaccustomed words and feelings inserted into their heads by the software, and they must interact with characters that don't strictly exist. Given these parameters, it's a marvel that Law and Leigh manage to make their characters so relatable.
If many of these plot elements sound familiar, it's because eXistenZ was doing Inception ten years before Inception. It puts forth the same observations about the human need for fantasy – a need so strong that any sense of the “real” is soon irretrievably lost. The film sums it up when Ted anxiously jacks out of the gameworld:
ALLEGRA: So how does it feel?
ALLEGRA: Your real life. The one you came back for.
TED: It feels completely unreal.
This is what ultimately makes both eXistenZ and Inception existential horror films – that feeling of being unmoored from the familiar, of falling through endless levels of unreality. The major difference between them is that eXistenZ takes things to a political level, asking the fundamental question of whether or not it's morally right for a human being to create a fantasy that challenges reality in complexity and verisimilitude. The film certainly makes a strong case for the idea that reality is in some sense sacred, and that tampering with it will only lead to a nightmarish uncertainty; however, it also sneakily implies the notion that it's already too late for us, that we can never truly know whether our world is the Real World or some imperfect simulation dreamed up by a wannabe god.
eXistenZ was largely inspired by the works of Philip K. Dick – the man behind Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, and the soon-to-be-rebooted Total Recall. Dick's relentless Gnostic obsession with simulacra and the fluid nature of identity is all over the film; but it's Cronenberg's surreal imagery that sticks with you more than anything. The scene in which Ted unwillingly eats a mutated amphibian and then mechanically builds a gun out of its bones – his face a mask of confusion, horror, and wonder – is probably one of the best things ever committed to celluloid. Cronenberg's enthusiasm for the weird and grotesque never fails to amaze. He's been telling this story for years: the one about man's uneasy relationship with flesh and bone. It's the same story that Prometheus tells, and the nightmare-logic that propels that film is siphoned from the same tainted bloodstream that courses through the works of Cronenberg, Lynch, Bergman, Aronofsky, and von Trier. In the final estimation, they say, we don't have a clue what's real and what's not.
Cronenberg never disappoints, and his new film Cosmopolis – starring Robert Pattinson, based on the novel by Don DeLillo, and scheduled for release in August of 2012 – is sure to be a unique and fascinating story. While you wait for it to hit theaters, take some time to get acquainted with his previous efforts, starting with eXistenZ. Be prepared to have your sense of self genuinely shaken. As Ted says, “We're stumbling around together in this unformed world, whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don't understand.” Allegra responds, “It's a game everybody's already playing.”
For Fans Of: The Matrix, Videodrome, Inception, Naked Lunch, Dark City, A Scanner Darkly, Eraserhead, Mulholland Dr.
Why We Like It: stunning imagery, addresses real philosophical questions, great performances, solipsism at its finest