David Cronenberg’s 1999 reality-bending science fiction adventure eXistenZ examines virtual reality in much the same way The Matrix did the same year, but smaller. Without the massive budget for eye-popping CGI effects or a huge marketing blitz, it’s easy to forget eXistenZ in the shadows. Now that nearly 20 years and two fairly bad Matrix sequels have passed, the shine has come off that apple a bit and it’s time for eXistenZ to get some recognition.
Renowned video game developer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is debuting her newest, most immersive game yet, called eXistenZ. During a focus group session, an assassin tries to murder Allegra, and she and her assistant Ted (Jude Law) go on the run to keep the game’s bio-mechanical host “pod” alive before it can be destroyed or stolen by a rival game developer. After the game pod becomes infected with a virus, Allegra and Ted have to go inside the game itself to keep it from being destroyed from the inside out, but the game
Before we get too far in on this piece, it’s important to note that just about everything in this movie is open to interpretation, even more so than the average virtual reality movie. It’s not obvious from the start, but it seems like Cronenberg was going for a social commentary on the nature of video games. I can’t really go into details without landing deep in the middle of Spoiler Country, but suffice it to say that a lot of elements that might seem cheesy or badly executed are probably deliberate attempts to make the decades-old medium of film resemble the nascent medium of video games. I took a very charitable approach while mentally scoring this movie because of its value as a commentary piece; as always, your mileage may vary.
Cronenberg lays out his arguments reasonably well while still managing to tell an interesting story. Still, even when viewed as social commentary, eXistenZ is downright frustrating to watch. It seemed to me that the last (and possibly only) video game Cronenberg played before writing the movie was one of the old Sierra adventure games like King’s Quest, so the “gameplay” presented in the movie comes off as outdated, even by 1999 standards. It’s also about as user-friendly as an old Sierra adventure game – if you aren’t willing to take the film on its terms and look for deeper meanings, it’s certainly not going to come grab you. I know I found watching it to be more work than I expected, which is never something you really want to have to say about a film.
The world of the film is presented on its own, rather than taking place in a specific time and place, so there are no obvious anachronisms or ridiculously optimistic predictions about the future of technology. The major characters are mostly internally consistent, but of course, everyone’s constantly double-crossing each other, so things that might seem out of character to the audience make perfect sense considering the high stakes and shadowy goings-on. And the acting, especially a scenery-chomping turn by one-scene wonder Willem Dafoe, elevates what could be a truly ludicrous story into something worth sticking around to see to the end. Still, there’s no shortage of unmitigated lunacy in the story, and a viewer might need to really reach to justify some of the plot’s stranger turns.
No matter how you interpret things, you can expect the story to lurch disjointedly between multiple genres. Maybe it was planned that way and maybe it’s just a silly plot, but you’ll need to get used to watching about 4 different kinds of movie. Internally, the story is explained well enough, and most of the bizarre turns are earned simply by being in a virtual reality setting, but even the most charitable interpretations don’t fully excuse the movie’s meanderings. If you don’t have a strong familiarity with the history of storytelling in video games or don’t subscribe to the notion that almost every aspect of the film is a commentary on the medium of games, you’ll probably find the story less interesting. I, being a huge dork who has been playing video games ever since coming home one day in grade school to a brand-new 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (thanks, Mom and Dad!), can give the film a bit of a pass here.
It’s in the presentation of the movie, however, where I run out of patience. eXistenZ is another example of serviceable, rather than truly special, effects. It’s obvious that the budget just wouldn’t allow for expensive CGI or sweeping set pieces. Again, I could understand why Cronenberg may have wanted to keep things gritty and low-tech, but there are just too many cheap-looking effects to really convey his point coherently. It looks and feels low-budget in exactly the wrong places, and the movie’s world doesn’t look anywhere near advanced enough to have developed bio-mechanical devices capable of putting users into a compelling virtual reality. I don’t often wish for more CGI, but the science fiction at play here requires more spectacle than Cronenberg, the creative team, or the budget seems willing to deliver.
I’d give this film a very mediocre 5 out of 10; placing this movie at exactly the middle of the spectrum seems perfectly appropriate for both the movie itself and the experience of trying to make sense of it. Even though he advances some worthwhile ideas about video games, Cronenberg doesn’t seem to “get” the video game medium well enough to come off as anything more than an old man yelling at the neighbor kids to get off his lawn.