A virtual reality video game system that uses biological controllers gets corrupted through corporate espionage.
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law
Review by Jon Kissel (reposted from October 2016)
One of those rock stars is Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and the film opens with her introducing her new product, eXistenZ, to a room of interested patrons. In an early homage to Videodrome, her presentation is interrupted by an assassin who pulls an organic gun out of his controller, wounding Allegra before being killed himself. Ted Pikul (Jude Law), an ad man working for Allegra's company, scoops her up and gets her out quickly, but she's most concerned about the safety of the gamers who were unable to correctly disconnect in the mayhem, and are therefore still stuck in eXistenZ. They need to get into the game and find these gamers, but Ted, who has a phobia of being penetrated, is repulsed at the thought of installing a bio-port in his body and then sticking the umbilical cord-like controller cable into it. Allegra insists, and the two enter the gaming world, fighting off more assassins in real life and the digital one as the lines between the two get fuzzier.
Seeing what kind of world Cronenberg has cooked up, especially in his older work, is often the best part of a Cronenberg film, and that's never been more true than in eXistenZ. There's more to communicate here than in any of his other works that I've seen, and it's all done efficiently with the sick, can't-look-away body horror that accompanies so much of his work. Like Yorgos Lanthimos' modern masterpieces, what is deeply weird to the viewer makes total sense to the characters who have long ago accepted the vagaries of the world. There's eye-catching imagery around every corner, from repair shops to restaurants.
That icky imagery and the squishy sound editing that accompanies it is peak-Cronenberg. He is fulfilling every expectation and then surpassing them. The intensely erotic manipulation of the controllers, the blatantly sexual nature of the game's interface and the repeated emasculation of Law's character, and the straight-up whack-a-do details produce shock followed by laughter, and then repeat the emotional process. The organic gun mentioned earlier shoots teeth instead of bullets. The controllers are made from the organs of mutated fish and lizards, which are farmed in giant lagoons and processed in rusted-out factories. There's a dining scene that combines a grotesque platter of fish pieces and a puzzle which made me clap my hands in joy when it was completed.
As the shepherds through this amazing world, Leigh and Law are well-matched. Playing the expert, Leigh is perfectly calibrated as a tech titan, plenty condescending but in love with her work. She moves through the world sensually, logging every possible scent or touch as something that will find its way into eXistenZ. She treats her program like her child, and though that child takes the form of a throbbing, occasionally squealing, blob, Leigh is never less than dedicated to it. A late film transition for her character is incredibly portrayed, reminding the viewer how versatile this finally-reemerging actor can be. In the novice role, Law's justified reticence followed by his wide-eyed enthusiasm is a path that mirrors the viewer's. While not as magnetic as Leigh, he is an able partner. In smaller roles, Willem Dafoe is perfectly cast as a too-eager port installer, and Ian Holm is channeling his role in Alien, where his preternatural calm allows for the possibility of something more sinister.
eXistenZ is such a visual and storytelling tour-de-force that it is easy to lose the forest for the trees. The themes communicated here feel tired and even rehashed from Videodrome, which seemed prescient from its release in 1983. Video game fearmongering was at its height in 1999 following the Columbine shootings, which happened a week before eXistenZ's release, and 17 years later, those fears have led to little but hysterical media farces. eXistenZ lacks in the depth and pathos of something like Dead Ringers or The Fly, but when there's so much invention here to be amazed by, those traits aren't missed. This isn't the best in Cronenberg's unique oeuvre, but in the categories of world creation and daring and exclamatory cinematic fun, it's his masterpiece. A-