eXistenZ (1999)

As I proudly count Videodrome as one of my all-time favorite films, I have no excuse for how long I’ve put off watching its kissing cousin, eXistenZ. Like how all Cronenberg horrors are driven by unspoken, cerebral fear, maybe I was subconsciously worried about seeing one of my most loved works lessened in its cultural update from cable television moral outrage to video game paranoia. eXistenZ even opens with a murder executed through an organic firearm made of bone & teeth, which picks up right where the flesh gun assassination conclusion of Videodrome leaves off. I wasn’t at all disappointed by my experience with eXistenZ, however. The film didn’t tarnish my appreciation of earlier Cronenberg works like Videodrome, but rather enhanced them by providing better context for the director’s career at large. Not only does a Cronenberg spin on the video game paranoia explored in less-horrific titles like The Matrix & TRON have an instant appeal to it, but eXistenZ also serves as a great bridge between the cerebral body horror of the director’s early career and the cold philosophical comedies he’s been making since the mid-2000s.

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as a hotshot virtual reality game developer who’s workshopping her greatest work to date, eXistenZ. The focus group testing of the game is disrupted when an assassination attempt is made with the aforementioned bone gun, leaving the developer/artist vulnerably injured. A marketing nerd played by Jude Law then finds himself operating as a makeshift bodyguard, whisking the developer away to safety while a vaguely-defined They (a paranoid conspiracy theory combination of both anti-gamers & gaming corporations) chase the pair down. Reality blurs as the two new “friends” delve into multiple levels of games within games to ensure the safety of both eXistenZ and its creator. There are no TRON-like digital landscapes around to give away what is “reality” vs what is eXistenZ, so the movie mostly amounts to a colossal mind fuck of Cronenberg needling his audience into a paranoid questioning of the validity of every character & every story beat. His version of a virtual reality future is much grimier & more organic than most similarly-minded sci-fi, works that tend to vizualize their own futurescapes with crisp lines & sanitized spaces. Cronenberg’s horrific vision is not the reality presented by the gaming systems, “meta flesh game pods” that plug into players’ spines through an umbilical chord & a puckered asshole of an outlet, or “bio-port” in the movie’s parlance. The writhing game pods, which look like gigantic human ears with clitoral nobs, make technology itself to be a literal horror, which really essentializes the paranoia films like The Matrix & The 13th Floor labor to communicate.

It’s interesting that no character in eXistenZ ever once says the term “video game,” yet we know exactly what medium Cronenberg is targeting. The glowing flesh cell phones & casual acceptance of virtual reality as a commonplace technology suggest a distant future where video games are a long-obsolete artform, but not so distant that the anus-like bio-ports & umbilical chord connectors that make gaming possible are acceptable to everyone. eXistenZ gleefully taps into the sexual taboo of female on male penetration, lingering on moments when Jennifer Jason Leigh has to lube up & enter Jude Law’s bio-port for stabs of psychosexual unease. Cronenberg sets up a fictional work where ours is “the most pathetic level of reality,” but the biological technology necessary to transcend it is a source of bottomless horror. Much like with Videodrome, he uses that bodily unease to open the film to metacommentary on the value of his own art. While Videodrome explores the violent & sexual urges titillated by a shifting media landscape, eXistenZ focuses on the nature of artificial realities created in individual movies, calling into question what qualifies as “real.” Characters detach from their in-game personas to critique the quality of the dialogue they’re compelled to say & what value a scripted sex scene has on their characterization. eXistenZ feels like the beginning of Cronenberg coldly playing with philosophical humor in conspicuously artificial environments, an aesthetic that became full fledged by the time he made more recent titles like Cosmopolis & Maps to the Stars. The joy is in watching him achieve that aesthetic through the technology-paranoid body horror tools of his earliest classics before abandoning them entirely.

From the continuation of Videodrome ideology to its dream logic sci-fi mindfuckery to the surprise of seeing a large chunk of the Last Night cast reassembled for a gross-out horror, I was always going to be predisposed to enjoy eXistenZ. It felt almost as if I were destined or scripted to watch & enjoy the film, a fate I delayed for as long as I could, but did not avoid indefinitely. As I’m wrapping up this review, I’m feeling a phantom itch where my bio-port should be, which is the exact kind of reality-questioning paranoia I hope to catch from all of my Cronenberg fare. If Jennifer Jason Leigh enters any room I’m in for the remainder of my life I’m going to let out an uncontrollable scream.

-Brandon Ledet

9 thoughts on “eXistenZ (1999)

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