Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (1999)

15. eXistenZ

In 1999, people were fascinated with virtual reality. The rise of CGI, the internet, and video games with digital graphics made it seem more possible than ever that every detail of life could be simulated by a computer. The days when we all lived inside a virtual reality seemed closer than ever. Of course, all of this was wildly presumptuous. It's almost twenty years later and we still haven't made a VR headset that doesn't make people sick. The technology might have been a long way off but filmmakers were clearly stuck on the idea. 1999 would see three films dealing with the subject. There was “The Matrix,” a huge commercial success and pop culture phenomenon. This was followed by “The Thirteenth Floor,” a largely forgotten flop, and “eXistenZ.” What the latter film had that the other two lacked was David Cronenberg in the director's chair. “eXistenZ” somehow manages to be the director's strangest film yet.

Allegra Geller is the greatest video game designer of the near future. Her games, fully immersive virtual reality experiences, are played on bio-mechanical “game pods” that plug into holes surgically inserted into people's spines. During the debut of her latest game, “eXistenZ,”  she is attacked by the Realist Rebellion, people who consider her games to be affronts to the natural order. Her bodyguard, Ted Pikul, drives her to a remote hotel for safety. There, worried that her the programming for eXistenZ might have been damaged, she convinces Ted to plug into the game with her. Once inside the virtual reality, Ted begins to question what is real.

It is widely noted that “eXistenZ” is the first script Cronenberg wrote that wasn't an adaptation of some other story since “Videodrome.” It seems Cronenberg designed this film to be a companion piece to his earlier masterpiece. In both films, someone on a stage is attacked by a rogue gunman. In both, the attacker is carrying an organic meat gun that fires an unusual projectile. (Tumors in “Videodrome,” teeth in “eXistenZ.”) During the shooting, both assailants shout “Death to..” someone or something. Beyond these blatant callbacks, both films address the way technology can change humanity's perspective of reality. Both films also cause the audience to be uncertain of what level of reality the story is taking place on.

“Videodrome” focused on television as the technology that was changing the way people look at the world. “eXistenZ” points a similarly scrutinizing eye on video games. The film attempts to deconstruct the tropes of the platform. Inside the video game world, the players interact with many NPCs – non-playable characters – that only respond to specific stimuli. When a cut scene occurs, the human players are taken over by impulses they can't control. Their bodies are moved by outside forces and they're just dragged along. By applying these notions to flesh-and-blood humans, “eXistenZ” shines a light on how absurd they are. The film is satirizing video games in other ways. Game characters are reduced to just their bare attributes, such as a gas station attendant named “Gas.” Inside a game store within the virtual reality, we see a lurid advertisement for a horror game... About the mundane subject of a Chinese restaurant. Though obviously outdated, “eXistenZ” definitely is doing some interesting things with video game mechanics that existed at the time.

Cronenberg brings his own aesthetic obsessions to the subject of video games, creating a very bizarre take on the concept. There's a definite kinky quality to gaming in the world of “eXistenZ.” Gellar's game pods interact directly with the human mind. An implant must be drilled into the human spine, which is done as casually as people getting their ears pierced, we're told. The console's umbilical cords plug directly into this opening. There are obvious sexual connotations to men being given new orifices that can be plugged into. Furthermore, when the cut scene occurs, Allegra and Ted are forced to make-out with each other. The first thing he does, while being directed by the game's plot, is tongue and kiss Allegra's port, making the sexual attribute obvious. Cronenberg is obviously satirizing the sex-and-violence obsessed world of gaming but he's clearly playing to his own kinky predilections as well.

While “Crash” and “Dead Ringers” definitely qualify, “eXistenZ” features the most of Cronenberg's trademark body horror since “The Fly.” Oddly, most of it is not centered on human bodies. The game pods do not look like Playstations or Super Nintendos. They are pulsating mounds of flesh. Their joysticks resemble nipples. They can be infected with viruses, causing them to grow black and diseases. The primary weapon in the game world are pistols made from mutated animal parts. These animals – such as a two-headed lizard or squirming salamanders – are also eaten. This leads to the film's most disgusting sequence, were a cut scene forces Ted to devour a boiling pot of sickening, green, rotting mutant amphibians. It's a stomach-churning, revolting scene. The meat-guns are kind of cool but the film's other body horror elements seem gross for grossness' sake. It's the first time Cronenberg's mutated special effects seem to serve no higher purpose.

It's not just the organic firearms carried over from “Videodrome.” “eXistenZ” also continues that film's interest in overlapping realities. In “Videodrome,” we were never entirely sure what was actually happening versus what was only happening in Max Renn's head. “eXistenZ” pushes this further. Once inside eXistenZ, Allegra and Ted gain smaller game pods, which seem like this world's equivalent to Gameboys or Game Gears. They then go deeper, awakening inside another game world within the game world. Eventually, inevitably, the theatrics of the game world – explosions and machine guns – seem to spill over into the actual world. The game world is completely indistinguishable from the waking world. So the viewer is constantly left wondering whether or not any of the things they're seeing are “real.” This leads to a somewhat predictable twist ending, where the curtain is pulled back further and the whole film is revealed to be a simulation.

Inside this story is a debate about the nature of reality. After awakening from eXistenZ, back into the hotel room, Ted notes that the real world now feels less real than the video game world. (This also mirrors a line from “Videodrome” about reality being “less than television.”) Throughout the story, Allegra is pursued by the Realist movement, terrorists who are determined to wipe out all alternate reality games. This is one of the story's few elements that are revealed to be “real.” In the final scene, guns are pointed at a minor character, who then asks whether or not they're still “playing the game.” Cronenberg frames the shot so that the guns are also pointed at the viewer. “eXistenZ” hopes to get the viewer to question how much of anything they experience is “real.” Yet it never makes a clear point about whether or not virtual reality is bad, since the realists are obviously extremists. It seems a bit like the film is playing with the viewer's head just for fun.

The conspiracy in “Videodrome” was a little hard to follow at first, which was meant to follow Max Renn's fracturing mind. However, after a few viewings, it's apparent that the plot of “Videodrome” actually does make sense. I've watched “eXistenZ” three times and I still don't understand everything that happens. Inside the game world, new information is dumped on us at regular intervals. Eventually, there are multiple betrayals and double-crosses, none of them happening for easily discerned reasons. I think “eXistenZ's” plot being nonsensical is very much on purpose. Since it's all revealed to be a simulation anyway, Cronenberg may be making fun of the frequently disjointed plots of video games. Either way, it makes for a frustrating viewing experience.

A script like “eXistenZ,” which deliberately blurs realism and artificiality, must have been tricky for the cast to play. This is evident in the performances. Jude Law stars as Ted, one of a few odd genre roles he would take early in his career. Law plays Ted, at first, as something of a coward. He's incredibly nervous throughout the story's early parts. He's the only person in the movie that doesn't have a surgical game port and he's fearful of getting one. Due to the winding story, Law plays Ted as continually baffled. It's an occasionally funny performance and one that suits the material, even if you can tell that Law is having trouble finding an “in” to his character.

This conflict is also clear in Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance as Allegra Gellar. Leigh, an extraordinary gifted actress, seems a bit wooden at times. It's hard to tell if Leigh is playing the character exactly as written, as Gellar is a genius that has trouble interacting with normal people, or is simply under-emoting. There are other scenes where Gellar acts like an enthusiastic woman-child, which seems to give Leigh more to chew on. Still, it's an odd performance, another element leading to “eXistenZ” not being an entirely satisfying experience.

The supporting cast, mostly playing characters that primarily exist in the video game world, seem to be having a lot more fun. Ian Holm reappears from “Naked Lunch,” sporting a ridiculous German accent, as a scientist within eXistenZ. He happily hams it up throughout a few scenes. Willem DaFoe appears as Gas, the singularly named gas station attendant. DaFoe brings a lot of sarcasm to the role, making his relatively small part memorable. Robert A. Silverman makes his, thus far, final appearance in a Cronenberg movie as the game shop owner, who also has a silly accent. Silverman is clearly enjoying playing such a bizarre character.

As a critique or deconstruction of video games, “eXistenZ” has one pretty serious problem. It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to play a video game like this, with its dreary setting, lack of action, and confusing story. This is the last pure sci-fi/horror movie Cronenberg would ever make and it seems to show his obsession eating themselves a little. The body horror and mind-warping story of “eXistenZ” fail to make much of a point, existing simply because they can. The film remains one of the director's most divisive movies, embraced by some and shrugged off by others. While I think “eXistenZ” is full of interesting ideas, none of them connect in a gratifying way. Mostly, it's just a hard-to-follow viewing experience that is too often unpleasant in an unrewarding way. [Grade: C+]

No comments: