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eXistenZ (1999)

by on 2010/07/26

What a difference a month made.

Sometime in June, Geek vs Goth decided to go beyond a single-day acknowledgement of Canada.  At the risk of hyperbole, the first of July would do more than mark the birth of a nation, it would begin a month-long celebration of its cinema.

Of course, practice often sways the theory.

On Saturday, July 17th, we saw Inception.

Though I fully intended to review it in depth, I also decided I would wait until after July to do so.  Not only would that delay allow me to continue recognizing filmic CanCon, it would also give me the time to process and articulate what I had seen.  To say I was impressed would be a gross understatement.  One could almost categorize my reaction as a religious experience.

Almost.

One reason I wanted to reflect and carefully consider my response was that — as enthused as I was (and still am) by Inception — I was haunted by the suspicion that it didn’t merit a full five stars, and I wasn’t comfortably certain as to why not.

But now I think I understand, because I’ve finally seen eXistenZ.

I have wanted — in a vague and roundabout manner — to see this eccentrically-titled film for the last decade or so.  I had no particular awareness that it was Canadian when I first set eyes on the VHS tape in a grocery store across the street from my apartment.  It simply looked appealing to me in the same way that The Matrix or The Thirteenth Floor did.  I remember it  had something to do with virtual reality.  Still, even as its director David Cronenberg is praised widely, eXistenZ has been dismissed almost as often.

Oddly, when I saw it at last, my reaction was subdued compared to Inception, hardly breathtaken.  I attribute the lack of exhilaration to two things.  First, it was hard to feel that same blindsided surprise, for I recognized their parallels early on.  Second, I was taken aback that Cronenberg had already realized so much of Nolan’s widely-celebrated achievement, over a decade earlier.  Certainly they are distinct pieces; eXistenZ lacks the Fleming Sweep of Inception, but it is possessed of a pulsing life all its own.  To generalize:  where the latter has breadth, the former has depth.

eXistenZ introduces us to a world in which virtual lives are commonly lived with the help of personal consoles called pods.  Here experience is equated with gaming; whether “gaming” is purely semantic or something more significant is left to the viewer.  Furthermore “biotechnology” has a novel connotation:  devices we’d consider conventionally mechanical are here bred or built from living organisms.  This approach raises some interesting issues about the relationship we share with non-human animals and our responsibility to them.

In this world Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) enjoys celebrity (and its attendant notoriety) as a renowned-but-reclusive designer.  Her companion Ted Pikul (Jude Law) is a low-level marketer charged with protection duties after a surprise attempt on Allegra’s life.  Together they seek refuge, initially in the distance of physical flight, later in the depths of nested game worlds.

The cast is exceptional.  A variety of memorable minor roles feature:  Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who), Kris Lemche (Ginger Snaps), Willem Dafoe (Daybreakers, Spider-Man), Ian Holm (Alien, Lord of the Rings), Don McKellar (Last Night, Twitch City), Callum Keith Rennie (Battlestar Galactica, Due South), and Sarah Polley (Dawn of the Dead, Go), among others.  The successive character appearances lend the narrative an unstructured episodic feel, connected by the thread of Ted and Allegra’s journey.  Such character-driven plot mechanics account for a pacing less Strange Days than Being John Malkovich.

Cronenberg employs a technique of revisiting prior locations under the influence of new characters or, conversely, familiar characters in new locations.  He manages the cast well, favouring fluidity over speed to explore the nature of shifting realities:  faith, belief, creation, and experience.  Beyond the standard “dangers of technology” debate, the philosophical currents are many and varied.  What are the parallels between escapism and religious devotion?  How do the worlds of the body and mind relate?  Are we our own gods?  Does free will exist?  Is addiction destiny?  Such questions inform the very fabric of this film.

But eXistenZ is not all work.  It suggests other matters, including a light postmodern exposure of its own artifice.  While no fourth walls are broken, characters occasionally comment on their situations, dialogue, and performances.  It’s a clever conceit which extends to such matters as the amount of screen time each character enjoys and the relative success of the accents they affect.  This kind of quirk mishandled could weaken a lesser film; here in the context of virtual worlds, it plays a valid role.

While I do have criticisms, they seem trivial in comparison with the overwhelming greatness on display here.  First, I was disappointed by the relative absence of Sarah Polley, especially given her high billing.  Second, I found the organic technologies visually unconvincing.  I must admit the possibility however that Cronenberg intended its rubbery appearance to denote unreality; we know from experience he has no qualms about grossing out his audience should he require grisly impact.

In fact — as far as mainstream acceptance goes — that latter point may be this film’s greatest detriment.  Where Inception exploits the conventions of a heist to illustrate its dream worlds, eXistenZ busies itself with the glistening entrails of vivisection.  Forsaking any consideration of the viewer’s comfort, Cronenberg’s puppets caress suggestive protuberances to initiate gameplay, consume the innards of novel animals, assemble weapons from dislocated body parts, and hack away umbilical cords to force a disconnect.  A squeamish audience risks missing the forest for the trees or, rather, the form for the viscera.

To put it as geekily as I can:  If Inception is the Battle of Hoth, then eXistenZ was a trip to Dagobah.  It’s a stunning work, far ahead of its time.  Similar ideas have been explored in films like Tron, Dark City, and The Matrix, but its recursive complexity may finally find acceptance with the popular success of Inception (and the followers that Nolan’s film will probably inspire).  Both meditations on the nature of delusion, escape, and obsession, eXistenZ plays more as caution than action, forsaking sweep for shock, and polish for grit.

What a difference a decade made.

* * * * *

Rated R for language and violence

97 minutes

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