Published April 1, 1999
The latest from David Cronenberg, eXistenZ, has a certain unexpected wit to it. Set in an unspecified future, it tells the story (or should we say seems to tell the story?) of the world’s greatest computer-game developer, called Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Her newest and greatest game, eXistenZ, involves putting the players into a sort of communal trance and wiring them up to a cable deliberately made to resemble an umbilical cord. In this position, they can be made to share the same dream (or nightmare), in which all of them are assigned roles to play. As she is demonstrating the prototype of eXistenZ before an invited audience a would-be assassin shoots her with an organic gun, made from animal bones and firing human teeth, designed to evade detection by futuristic security devices that can recognize both metal and plastic.
She is only wounded, however, and manages to make her escape with the help of a lowly “PR nerd” called Ted Pikul (Jude Law) from her corporate sponsor, the Antenna Research Company. Together the two embark upon a wild adventure on the run both from a rival game company, called Cortical Systematics, who want to steal the software, and from something called the “realist underground”— which consists of guerrilla troops violently opposed to all computer gaming. The weirdness of their adventures bears a suspicious resemblance to that of computer games themselves, and it is hard to tell if such futuristic touches as the mutant lizards and amphibians that are harvested both for food and for parts for organically composed game “pods” are meant to be real or imaginary.
Allegra treats her beloved pod as something more than a pet and very little less than a friend, which I gather is meant to seem a consequence of the fact that this is a world in which everybody, at least among the privileged classes, apparently lives entirely inside his or her head. Allegra and Pikul think they will be safe hiding out at a ski lodge because “nobody actually physically skis anymore.” All games players have a surgically implanted “bioport” at the base of their spines into which the games can be plugged by one of the umbilical cords, and the insertion of the plug, like the feminine shape of the pod, is amusingly fraught with sexual imagery. Since Pikul has not had a bioport installed, he must get one—for unexplained reasons an “illegal, unregistered” one—from a hilarious gas station attendant called Gas (Willem Dafoe) so that he can play with Allegra. When he has got it, she sprays the new port with WD-60 (it is the future, after all) before sticking her finger in it: “Sometimes new ports are a bit tight,” she explains. “I wouldn’t want to hurt you.”
It is, as I say, a witty idea, as are some of the wilder and more unexpected events that the two encounter, though the fantastical animals strike me as rather a bore and the use that is made of them pointlessly disgusting. But in the end the whole thing boils down to a meditation on the borderland between dream and reality, about which there is simply not very much more to be said than that it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart. It is of course even more difficult in a film in which, because of the futuristic setting, the director can arbitrarily identify any detail as real or fantasy. But the fact that he has made his own work so easy seems to me to vitiate the attempt at profundity when he has Pikul complaining that the game “makes no sense” because you don’t know if there’s any object to it and you’re always on the point of being killed. “It’s not going to be easy to market,” he says.
“But it’s a game everybody is already playing,” replies Allegra.
Heavy! Yes, life itself is a lot like that. But there’s one big difference between it and the game—or, indeed, the movie—which is that in life the outcomes of such uncertainties matter. I’m not sure that Cronenberg quite appreciates this fact.