Can one single concept carry a science fiction movie? What if our technology in the future was replaced with organic devices? So, a pistol is not made out of metal but organic matter like teeth and bones and it’s called a gristle gun. You play a video game using a special controller that looks like some strange biomass, a pod. I guess I could describe it as a giant ear with nipples, a clitoris, and other weird stuff. It looks kind of freaky but that’s the whole point. This entire movie is kind of freaky. So, it will come as no surprise when I tell you that this is David Cronenberg’s creation.
Behind the intriguing title, eXistenZ hides a thought-provoking, bizarre, and above all, visceral science fiction movie. We will be following Allegra, a video game designer trying to outrun her killers with the help of a clueless marketing guy Ted Pikul. The story unfolds in real time which is always a great thing. Add to this a short running time of just ninety minutes and eXistenZ becomes much more palatable despite its sometimes gross contents. We’re fed little bits and pieces of information at just the right times, edging us on to finish the movie and find out what’s really going on.
That single concept I was talking about earlier refers to the visuals. What this movie is really about is the virtual worlds of video games. There were a lot of these virtual reality movies during the nineties. The first one I remember watching was The Lawnmower Man from 1992 based on a Stephen King novel. And I promise I’m going to finish it one of these days despite the epic running time of two hours and twenty minutes (Director’s Cut). We then had Virtuosity starring Denzel Washington and the indie sleeper hit The Thirteenth Floor. Strange Days is also in this category although all of them were overshadowed by the one and only The Matrix.
At a secret location, a group of eager individuals are about to embark on a journey of a lifetime. They’re about to check out Allegra Geller’s latest video game. A completely immersive experience that feels as real as real life. Just as they all hook up into this virtual realm, an assassin pulls out a weird gun and starts shooting at Allegra. Ted, who was working security at the event, feels responsible for this incident so he grabs Allegra and the two of them flee from the site. Now on the run and unsure who to trust, Allegra and Ted will have to think of a way to get out of this mess.
eXistenZ is one of those underrated, dark, and edgy movies fans like to brag about any time someone mentions The Matrix. I’m a huge fan of both of these movies and I think they offer different experiences. This is not a matter of which one is better to be quite blunt. Despite the somewhat convoluted story, eXistenZ will make sense once you get into it. And it will also offer a lot of interesting twists and turns. Jude Law’s character Ted is basically the viewer asking all the right questions at the right times which explains what is going on.
Jennifer Jason Leigh was the right choice to play the quirky game designer Allegra without coming off as pretentious. Apart from the two we also have Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe in small but memorable roles. You could also argue that eXistenZ is an appendix to the cyberpunk genre. We’ve got all these biomechanical elements complete with jacks in your spine to hook up your connection to the game. And since the godfather of the genre, William Gibson uses the same thing in his seminal cyberpunk work Neuromancer, I think this categorization is appropriate.
When it comes to the special effects, this is the first Cronenberg’s movie featuring CGI. However, you’ll hardly notice it because it’s mostly used to amplify the classic practical effects. There were a couple of pretty graphic scenes which dance a fine line between gross and sexual. Jim Isaac, visual and special effects supervisor says that the gristle gun was the easiest thing to create. He kept working with David on developing these things throughout the movie. Something I’m sure wasn’t easy. In the end, there’s nothing too heavy here that should put off the average viewer.
The movie also draws inspiration from Phillip K. Dick’s works complete with government conspiracies. It’s a meditation on our own lives as so poignantly Jude Law’s character concludes when they’re taken back to the trout farm after killing the double agent. I know I’m not making a lot of sense now but once you plunge into this strange movie, it’s all going to reveal itself. Finally, I want to recommend another highly underrated nineties gem exploring some of the same questions. Mindwarp is a bit rougher around the edges but it’s delightfully creative and engaging. I’m also yet to watch Cronenberg’s latest movie Crimes of the Future exploring much of the same issues.
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Oscar Hsu, Christopher Eccleston
Fun Facts: Cronenberg said once in an interview that he drew inspiration for some of the events in the movie from Salman Rushdie’s fatwa.