Dir.: David Cronenberg, R, 97 min.
It's no longer enough for action movies to be amusement. Now they have
to be amusement parks as well. They're blurbed as "thrill rides" and
"roller coasters," and the more they follow the basic pattern of your
average Nintendo game, the more highly they're touted. It was considered a
breakthrough a few years back when a studio tested "interactive" movies,
which gave the illusion of choice by letting audiences pick from different
Now, what would really be interactive would be for someone to say
screw the movie and take a pickax to the screen--if not to the moviemakers
themselves. And if you push audiences far enough, removing just enough of
their sense of the familiar, they just might do it: All it takes is
crossing the line from safe entertainment into uncontrollable chaos.
This distinction has haunted the work of director David Cronenberg for
the last 20 years. In his latest film, the sense-deranging thriller
eXistenZ, the potential for chaos exists at every turn--as befits a
vision in which reality is manufactured, flesh fuses with metal, and
organic guns shoot human teeth. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Geller,
the world's hottest game designer, who assembles an audience to preview her
mind-blowing new VR creation "eXistenZ." At the test run, however, she
learns all too vividly that she's under a death sentence from "realists,"
terrorists who see virtual reality as life-threatening--and will therefore
kill to stop it. Soon Allegra is on the run through a surreal underworld,
followed by a wide-eyed PR flack (Jude Law) who has never played a video
game but will have to play hers. Naturally, there's a catch. Playing
eXistenZ requires humans to plug the game directly into their spines,
through an "UmbyCord" into an anus-like "bioport."
That's a lot to go through for cheap thrills, and lots of folks likely
feel the same way about Cronenberg's gooey, horrific oeuvre. With its
spurting goo, transgressive sex, futuristic paradoxes, and death matches of
mind and flesh, eXistenZ is a Cronenberg career summation organized
along the theme of interaction--not just between player and game, but
between viewer and art. Once inside eXistenZ, Allegra and company pause to
note the triteness of their dialogue, the inadequacy of their characters.
You get the feeling the movie's eyeing you for a reaction.
Consequently, the movie plays tricks on what audiences want and expect
from pop entertainment, be it a video game or a sci-fi thriller. Want
blood? Cronenberg provides the requisite gory violence, only in such an
arbitrary way it's exposed as shameless yahoo-pandering. Want a rational
narrative? Cronenberg makes leaps of logic, character, and setting so
baffling that they don't become clear until the end. Even then, the final
outcome is so devious you'll sit poking yourself to make sure you won't
disappear with the click of the projector. Only the dullest of brains could
fail to interact with this gale-force mindfuck.
Still, Cronenberg has frequently contended with the dullest of
brains--most recently, the reviewers who took the sex-as-collision simile
of Crash as literal pornography. The writer-director has said the
idea for eXistenZ came from the fatwa against Salman Rushdie,
whose fiction provoked a potentially lethal real-world backlash. But the
movie's "realists" could stand for all the pundits who point to scary
movies and Sega whenever inexplicable real-life violence erupts. Even our
president apparently sees no contradiction in chastising Hollywood mayhem,
even as he OKs bombing the hell out of the Balkans. Subversive and sneakily
funny, eXistenZ operates on just such levels of irony.