Millennial Malaise 26: eXistenZ

In Which Everything Used to be Something Else

The world of cyberpunk is absolutely rife with ideas about malleable identity, fluid sexuality, and body modification. So it’s no surprise that David Cronenberg, with his penchant for fleshy ports and sexually charged bio-mechanics, would eventually be drawn to the genre. It’s a space rife with changing self expression and the intoxicating possibilities of merging the meat world with the tech world, and one would think that Cronenberg would slide right in.

But 1999’s eXistenZ (I’m going to hate having to keep typing that) is a rougher entry into the genre from the master of mutilation than one would have hoped. The video game thriller glances off a bunch of interesting scenes and ideas without really coalescing into a singular coherent idea about our relationship to technology and the virtual world. It also feels like a bit of a re-hash for the Canadian auteur, a compiling of ideas presented in Videodrome and The Fly with a tech thriller twist. I think this boils down to the usual problem, filmmakers have a hard time wrapping their head around video games and struggle to represent them on screen.

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In Cronenberg’s vision of the game industry rock star designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) debuts her newest toy in a small, church looking building. As she demos her new fleshy gamepod an assassin threatens her life and with the help of PR guy Ted Pikal (Jude Law) they go on the run to figure out who’s behind the conspiracy, eventually entering the gooey virtual space to see if Allegra’s new game was broken or stolen. These levels of reality start bleeding into one another, as elements of the game seemingly leak into reality, revealing plots within plots to kill Allegra and end the world of gaming (by a group called The Realists). Only, at the last second everything is revealed to be all a game. Allegra and Ted were just players in a different VR space, and they are the actual assassins for the actual designer in actual reality, or are they?

The worlds within worlds conceit is pretty much potboiler for cyberpunk stories by the time eXistenZ rolled around (hell The Matrix came out a few months before it and also had the conceit of people being used as batteries for machines), and Cronenberg is able to wrangle some interesting stuff out a now familiar conceit. Obviously the big one is the focus on the gooey fleshiness of the gamepods themselves. Each controller combining the oddest elements sexual anatomy (it’s got buttons that look like a clitoris, and a cable that fits in to one’s spine that is more than a little phallic) to create a repellent piece of technology. But the bodily look of the consoles creates a effective distancing factor throughout the film that eschews classic cyberpunk aesthetics. The technology here is not sleek or sexy, but living and grotesque. An item that allows one to imagine that a virtual reality might not be that far away from an organic one. One sequence shows a pod being operated on, and it looks no different from a dissection.

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The other aspect that provides a unique spin from the perspective of Cronenberg is, of course, the sex stuff. What’s fun is that there’s no actual intercourse in the film (though there is some heavy making out in one scene) but instead all sexual intimacy is relegated to the possible worlds of inserting new holes into one’s body. At the start of the movie Pikal is hesitant about getting a bio-port, stating that he, “has a fear of penetration.” But as soon as the connector in his spine opens up, he gets pretty into hole play. In the aforementioned makeout scene Ted excitedly licks Allegra’s port. This is the new realm of sex and identity, the more things we can put in the body the more we can our express ourselves.

Unfortunately these cinematic fetishes feel more like side dishes for what is ultimately an overly complicated plot that never starts until the very end, and poorly articulates its ideas of identity and reality. Since the whole thing is a game in the first place what are we supposed to get out of Allegra and Ted’s roleplay as their characters. The film implies that their roles are partially demanded by the game, but they do have their own agency, after all Allegra “wins” before the final reveal by killing Pikal. This gets back to a fairly strong misunderstanding of how video games work and are engaged with. This issue can be easily summed up with a quote from supposed rockstar designer Allegra who says, “You have to play the game to find out why you’re playing.”

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Now in the world of head trip films this statement is understandable, after all this is a movie all about blurring identity, but in the context of video games it makes no sense. Even in the most abstract of experiences there is some sort of notion of how interaction and engagement work. The whys and hows may be obfuscated, but rarely do people play to find out why they’re playing. That’s a sentiment more attuned to digital art than gaming. Also the game that all the characters play doesn’t seem that engaging in the moment, it’s slow and meandering and the other players are mostly sidestepped immediately, it doesn’t feel like a world meant for people to fully engage in, but instead a hermetic story that people participate in. The roleplay from the side characters never feels like total roleplay by the end, because they only exist to interact with our leads and feel shuffled away. They have no ineriority of their own beyond the main story.

These issues might be less of a problem if eXistenZ had more moments like the murder of the Chinese waiter. It’s a sequence that effectively builds on both tropes in video games (Ted gets a quest from an informant to complete) and bleeding realities (why does he have to kill the waiter). It also allows Cronenberg his best visual moment as Pikal gnaws away at mutant reptiles to construct a gun made out of bone that shoots teeth. It has a horrified surreal tension that the movie is never able to build up a head of steam to again, instead trying to explicate the multiple conspiracies to seemingly no end when the whole thing is revealed to be a game.

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It’s frustrating to see Cronenberg struggle to articulate a clear function of why these games within games play into his ideas of sex and bio-tech, but outside of moments there isn’t much to grab on to. The genre feels like it should be perfect, but things keep getting tripped up over vagaries and uncertainty. This lack of clarity is odd considering how well Cronenberg was able to tap into the fears of TV with Videodrome, but the world of video games just slips through his fingers like a slimy controller.

Odds and Ends

  • Best joke in the movie is that once all the characters are revealed to be players they revert to the actors’ normal accent.
  • JJL is an actor that I always wish had a bigger career. She’s a striking presence and brings a ton of energy to different roles.
  • Howard Shore’s score does a good job eschewing the expected sounds of the tech thriller genre. Instead creating something textured closer a noir.

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

Next Week: Can you believe it’s been 20 years since Dogma.