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eXistenZ (1999)
Director: David Cronenberg

review by Dawn Andrews

The film opens at a meeting in a dowdy lecture hall, colours very muted, plain chairs set in a semicircle upon the platform. The scene is set for the idea of virtual reality games exalted to the level of religion. Allegra Gellar, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is the gamers' guru, a woman who lives for games, and in games. As she self-consciously steps onto the stage, she invites members of the audience to try out her new creation - eXistenZ. The game-pods held upon the laps of the chosen players squirm into life when touched. Allegra is at risk from a fanatic, who calls her 'demoness' and accuses her of stealing his reality. She is shot with a strange organic gun, as are others.
   Everyone here seems daunted by reality, and Cronenberg never shows you what that everyday reality actually is - there are hints, nothing more. The supposed real world seems dull, as if all life has been drained from it - horrible colours, drab interiors, except for the two-headed mutant lizard - but this is before we discover that even the initial set-up is part of a game, and 'Allegra' a shy fan, herself recruited from the audience! (Or is she?) So this is all a game within a game, you are never allowed to stop playing for an instant. The pace is beautiful, truly a ride, and in this way it reminded me strongly of Crash (there is even a related joke in the form of a game entitled 'Hit by a Car' - "the game that puts you in the driver's seat!"). As in that film, you never escape the view of the world propounded by the action and actors, you are as trapped by their fixations as they are. Drawn in, it is impossible not to identify with them. Allegra's junkie-like need to play her game pulls at you, until you can't wait for Ted Pikul, marketing jockey turned bodyguard (a bemused and moody Jude Law), to get his game-port fitted. The scenes with Gas, played to the hilt by Willem Dafoe, are both funny and uncomfortable, and Ted's fear of being penetrated is played on again and again. His alternating moods, sympathetic, horrified, hero-worshipping, indignant, are in sync with the various changes in the game-plan, all motivated by the plea of his enigmatic charge, "I need to play eXistenZ with someone friendly... are you friendly?"
   The game-pod is "basically an animal," as Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm) states, Allegra calls it her 'baby'. I have always admired Cronenberg's ability to create objects that are potent, as in the instruments for the treatment of mutant women in Dead Ringers, and the customised injury supports in Crash. Fetishistic yet deadly accurate objects, attuned to whatever obsession is being explored. Here the obsession is the nature of reality, or the nature of game-playing, if you prefer, and I was asking the same question at the end, as does the puzzled onlooker in the final shot - 'are we still in a game?'
previously published online, VideoVista #14
eXistenZ
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