eXistenZ

In the agreeably low-tech world of eXistenZ, the elaborately entertaining new film by David Cronenberg, technology has sort of gone backwards, or sideways, and become technobiology. Those who fetishize computers and hardware won’t find much to plug into in this movie, which imagines, among other things, guns made out of flesh and bone and virtual-reality gamepods that resemble nothing so much as pulsating sex toys. This is not the Cronenberg of Crash, a stark icicle of a film; eXistenZ finds him in a witty and playful mood. The whole movie is a game, visceral as well as philosophical; it’s a great wild ride to stand alongside Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Naked Lunch.

To attempt a plot synopsis would be folly; I will limit myself to the basic set-up. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Allegra Geller, a renowned virtual-reality game designer preparing to unveil her latest masterpiece, “eXistenZ.” Unfortunately, a Khomeini-like fatwa has been issued on her life, and she goes on the run with public-relations rookie Ted Pikul (Jude Law), who becomes her bodyguard by default. What follows is 90 minutes of guess-what’s-real hijinks. In Cronenberg’s hands, however, such games are never played on the audience for their own sake: not for nothing do the game and the film have a metaphysical ring. A clue is provided the first time we hear someone pronounce the name — “ex-is-tenz” — which sounds closer to “existential” than to “existence.” If, as existentialism has it, we are responsible for our own acts in this reality as we know it, what happens if that reality is false?

As the middle film in 1999’s unofficial trilogy of virtual-reality fantasies, eXistenZ will no doubt be compared with the big hit The Matrix and the also-ran The 13th Floor, but Cronenberg works his own side of the street. He gets better and better as a filmmaker; every frame is meticulous in its control and purpose. Regular composer Howard Shore and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky build a firm aural and visual backdrop for Cronenberg’s complex ideas and structure. Ted Pikul, the latest in a long line of passive Cronenbergian observers, is our onscreen counterpart; we share his confusion and are grateful when Allegra briefs him on the rules of “eXistenZ” (first rule: there are no rules).

Even without the icky organic biomechanics, eXistenZ would be completely in keeping with Cronenberg’s method, which is to suggest that the world as seen through the eyes of the protagonists (and therefore through the audience’s eyes) shouldn’t be taken at face value. Cronenberg uses the multilevel construction of a game to show us what he has always shown us: that there is more than one way to experience reality. As the plot of the game keeps shifting, we are left without any bearings, without any way to know whether to trust anyone, even ourselves. This, of course, is life — or existence.

Depressing? Not the way Cronenberg approaches it. He’s a laughing existentialist here, a philosopher who sees the comedy in disorientation. In his version of Naked Lunch, everything we saw was merely the lead character’s self-protecting fantasy filter for what was really going on, and here we go deep inside a game designer’s contrived, cliched view of what’s happening around her. eXistenZ comes complete with its own self-critiques, but it’s not a shallowly amusing exercise in deconstruction á la Scream; it’s closer to our own detached experiences of watching ourselves watch ourselves until reality becomes a hall of mirrors in which we can’t escape the reflection of our own perceptions. eXistenZ is a fast and engaging joyride; it takes you around in circles, but you don’t see the same things twice.

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Explore posts in the same categories: comedy, cronenberg, science fiction, thriller

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