EXISTENZ (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sci-Fi Violence and Gore, and for Language

Existenz poster

Directed by: David Cronenberg

Written by: David Cronenberg

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley & Willem Dafoe

Though he might be known for his dark dramas today, a strong argument can be made that David Cronenberg single-handedly pioneered the sub-genre of body-horror on film. From disturbing early efforts like SHIVERS, THE BROOD and VIDEODROME to his far more mainstream remake of THE FLY, Cronenberg has never been a director afraid to get his hands dirty with a few bodily fluids all while throwing more than a little social commentary into his work. EXISTENZ is Cronenberg’s final body-horror film before totally making it into art-house dramas and though it might not be at the peak of his bizarre masterpieces, it’s a damn fine note to go out on. This film is pretty much VIDEODROME with video games and that’s not a bad thing in the slightest.

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In the near-future, video games has taken a disturbing new turn. There is no such things as consoles with remote controls anymore, because why would you need that when you can just literally stick yourself into a game (or stick the game into you). Nifty body modifications, called Bioports, are holes drilled into your spine and you’ll just insert something that resembles an umbilical cord into said hole to play whatever game you choose. Not surprisingly, a faction of radical folks called Realists (some real subtle social commentary) have risen up and are making violent movements against this abomination of reality. Allegra Gellar is a highly influential gaming designer testing out her new product (titled Existenz) when an assassination attempt is made on her life. Rescued by trainee Ted Pikul, the two go on the run. Gellar is suspicious that her new game may have been damaged or corrupted so the two decide to “play” it and from there on the movie turns into a fever dream of surrealism and nightmarish body-horror.

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EXISTENZ asks certain suspension of belief from the viewer, but not in a bad way. We are thrust into a world where body modifications and video games are one and the same. All sorts of oddities are given that we’re automatically forced to accept as viewers. There’s a two-headed reptile creature that’s just sort of kept as a pet and no real answer is brought up to exactly what this thing is…aside from it’s a friggin’ two-headed reptile. There’s a ton of creativity here and any lesser filmmaker could have just wallowed in Cronenberg’s little ideas that are merely set-up to the bigger picture at hand. The body-horror, though not nearly as gory or graphic as VIDEODROME or THE BROOD, manages to be every bit as insane and disturbing as Cronenberg’s earlier efforts. I mean, the idea that you’re literally modifying your body to play a video game is creepy enough, but it progressively gets even freakier with organic systems being plugged into you and other biological twists (including the erotic licking of someone’s Bioport hole and a skeletal gun that shoots teeth for bullets).

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As you might imagine any film that deals with escaping reality will inevitably ask the question of what reality means. 1999 was a year in which many films asks philosophical questions about what constitutes our existence. Besides EXISTENZ, there was the far more popular MATRIX and the criminally underrated THIRTEENTH FLOOR. Each of these films morphed its science fiction concept into something wholly unique and Cronenberg uses conspiracy theories as his little spin in the plot. Even when our characters are not being hunted in the real world, they are being pursued through the world of Existenz by threatening forces. The script comes off as convoluted, but there’s no denying that was entirely intentional. As a whole, the movie is about our characters escaping reality (or as one of them calls it: “a cage”) and trying to find their way back to it…which may or may not work in their favor.

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There are a couple of flaws that do stick out in EXISTENZ though. Jude Law is enjoyable as Pikul, even if his character is a bit of a whiny pansy at the start. Willem Dafoe and Ian Holm have brief appearances that I’d argue are wasted, but they make the most of the screen time they’ve been given. However, Jennifer Jason Leigh is wooden as the gaming genius Geller. Though it’s mentioned near the beginning that she’s antisocial and that quality leads to her nervous character quirks, there’s a distinct line between playing a character and bad acting. I think that Leigh crosses that line on numerous occasions in this film delivering philosophical rantings about the benefits of extreme gaming in a wooden way. I can also see people being slightly pissed about this movie’s ending and yeah, I’ll admit that it can be seen as a bit of a cop-out. However, I felt this was the only logical way that Cronenberg could have concluded the already twisted and bizarre story.

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EXISTENZ may not be Cronenberg’s best film, but it’s a damn fine conclusion to his body-horror period of filmmaking. Shades of VIDEODROME can definitely be seen throughout (from organic guns to hallucinatory nightmare logic), but EXISTENZ remains a mighty original and insane ride. The acting from Jennifer Jason Leigh can be a little wonky and some folks might not be satisfied by the ending, but there are so many ways that one can interpret this film (I won’t go into specifics for fear of spoilers) and each of those readings is completely valid. Overall, EXISTENZ is a gleefully crazed ride loaded with violent twists and strange turns. The subtext might not exactly be subtle, but that’s part of the enjoyment. Highly recommended!

Grade: A-

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