It was a golden year for virtual reality when this came out in 1999, the same summer as The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor, three very different films, each with their own qualities. The Matrix is an action and special-effects spectacular with a Philosophy 101 text, The Thirteenth Floor is melancholy expression of wanting to live a different life, and eXistenZ is heady sci-fi about living in a false reality until you can no longer distinguish the real reality. And—it’s funny!
I remember seeing this in the theater and being blown away, not least by the gorgeous opening credits. They’re many overlapping layers of what looks like sand or gold leaf and… it’s just really pretty. I wonder why video artists keep doing things like documenting themselves stuffing their mouths with as many cottonballs as they can, and don’t just try to make beautiful video paintings. But I digress.
We join the story proper at a test run of this new game, eXistenZ [the capitalization is one of the film’s conceits, go with it], which a hall of about 80 people is packed in to play. They are going to be led through the game by its designer, Allegra Gellar, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. They pick 12 volunteers, who come up on stage and “port in” to the game system. Now, these games plug directly into your spine, through a sort of fleshy unbiblical cord, and completely take over your senses, so playing them is indistinguishable from reality. The game controllers are these fleshy pods with buboes that you stroke and pinch, and they in return pulsate and undulate, because they are, in fact, alive. Yes—it’s disturbing!
Jude Law as Ted is also on hand as a mild-mannered security guard. So all of a sudden this guy in the audience whips out this freaky-looking gun and shoots Allegra! Only in the shoulder, though, as usual. Ted is suddenly charged with protecting Allegra, and he gets her to a car and they take off. You see, they have to worry about the “Realist Underground,” who support the living of life in REALITY, and fear that some sort of schism could occur in which reality would be compromised forever.
So one of my favorite moments about this movie is when Ted whips out his pinkphone, which is the size of a cell phone, but is made of an organic shape of rounded pink plastic. Then Ted digs the bullet out of Allegra’s shoulder—and finds it’s a human tooth. The gun it was fired from [Ted took it] is made entirely of bone, so it could get through various detectors. Allegra wants him to play her game with her, because she says it was wounded when she was shot and it could die. If you start to notice that she is as emotionally involved with this game as she would be if it were a living child, that is not by accident. But Ted doesn’t even have a bioport, a hole he could plug into the game with! This involves, essentially, drilling him another asshole, right above his other one. This is where the hilariously homoerotic material comes in, as Ted starts saying things like “I have this phobia bout having my body penetrated.” He finally relents, but wonders where they’re going to have it done at midnight in the middle of nowhere... “I suppose we just drive up to your local country gas station?” In the next shot, they are outside a building labeled “Country Gas Station.”
The gas station is run by Gas, played by Willem Dafoe, who is finally persuaded to install a black market bioport into Ted once he recognizes Allegra and gets down to kiss her feet. This leads to more “penetration” comedy with Ted as Gas prepares to create a new hole in Ted’s body. While they’re inside, Allegra walks around outside, and sees this two-headed lizard-bird-insect mutant. I recall this being one of the most indelible moments from when I saw this movie in the theater, because that thing looks nasty [and is making various unfriendly noises], but Allegra pets it and it just coos nicely as it nuzzles her hand.
Inside Ted is freaking because the next part involved him getting shot point-blank in the bank with a machine that looks like a jackhammer, but Allegra gets tough and tells him to “break out of his cage” and play the game, leaving boring, pathetic reality behind. Once the operation is accomplished, Ted’s bioport does look appallingly like an asshole, and Allegra lubricates it with a barely-disguised can of WD-40! Come on folks, this stuff is HILARIOUS.
They plug in and Ted blows her game. Gas installed a bad port to try to destroy the game! After he’s blown away, Allegra is all freaked about the damage to her game [and you’re starting to be like, “Sweetie, aren’t you a bit self-centered? Like, get out a bit more.” They go to this ski lodge, where Ted sees the two-headed lizard. “Mutated amphibian,” Allegra says casually. “Sign of the times.” When Ted comments on the ski lodge, she says “Oh come on, nobody physically skis anymore.”
At the ski lodge they meet Ian Holm, who operates on Allegra’s pod—it is indeed blood and organs and viscera inside. Once done, they want Ted to hook up, with Allegra FINGERING his bioport and saying it “wants action,” to which Ted replies “But I really don’t think that >I< wants action. Me, the bearer of the bioport.” This movie hails from back when Jude Law was still underexposed and you might want to see him in a movie.
So they finally go into the game, where things get really amusing. After we notice a sign “Chinese Restaurant: Will you make it out alive?” they talk to this guy. Ted finds himself saying something out of character, and Allegra informs him that it is dialogue: “Certain things have to be said to advance the plot.” The guy they’re talking to suddenly goes into this loop, as though on pause, and will only come out of it when you direct a question to him by name. I found the realization of all this game stuff to be highly amusing. Anyway, we’re going to pick up the pace here. They find a more advanced, portable version of the game system—hilariously packaged in plastic bubble so it can hang from a peg in a store—and go into that game from within this game. They have multiple adventures, and go into games within games within games. When they finally find themselves back in reality—they can no longer be sure that it’s reality. Besides, as Allegra says “Nothing’s going on here [in reality].” There’s a lot more humor concerning the mechanics of the game, and the introduction of scenes that play out at the “Mutant Trout Farm,” which is where the mutant amphibians are grown and harvested for their organs, which they make the game pods out of. There’s also this disturbing part where Allegra’s pod becomes diseased, and they burn it—whereupon it explodes and shoots spores all over everywhere! Unfortunately the spores idea doesn’t really go much of anywhere.
Toward the end, there are a few scenes when a character who seemed like he was a close friend gets killed, and when others are stunned that he could be offed so easily, Allegra responds “Relax, he’s just a game character.” There are also numerous scenes in which they wake up to reality, only to discover it isn’t reality, or they aren’t sure if it’s reality. The point comes through with the subtlety of a sledgehammer toward the end, which is a bit unfortunate, as the sum effect is to make you concentrate on that one point, and forget all the subtlety that occurred earlier.
For me, one of the most effective, less-hammered points is the way we grow comfortable, through exposure, with things that, if you were to take a step back, are REALLY odd and disturbing. The clearest embodiment of this is the two-headed lizard, and the way when you first see it you think “WHAT is that? It’s going to attack her!” and then she just pets it like it’s the kind of thing you see all the time. This continues with all the mutant amphibians, and the way they’re grown and harvested for game pods, and the way these machines are now made of organic material, and the way people just casually blow a hole in their spine and connect this thing to their nervous systems. The way it’s all treated as no big deal and a “sign of the times,” makes it very effective and chilling.
Toward the middle I was thinking “Why is Videodrome so popular and not this?” Part of that is that Videodrome was all new at the time and this is just more of the same, but also that this bashes your face repeatedly into “the point” toward the end, which diminishes it, and the point it bashes you with is one that is a common criticism of video games. They desensitize us to violence. They are more engaging than reality, and they lead to being unable to distinguish reality from fantasy. There may be some truth to these points, but they’re nothing you can’t read in the New York Times, so it just starts to feel a little pedantic and lecturing.
Nevertheless, I love it. It’s hilarious with all the parodies of video game conventions and Ted’s fear of “being penetrated,” and it’s genuinely disturbing with all the mutants and game pods and they strange rules that govern them all. It’s also exciting and fun to watch. So overall, a total winner! It’s just too bad Cronenberg had to be so obvious with his points toward the end, as it brings the entire movie down.
Yes! This is first class intellectual science fiction—AND it’s hilarious and exciting!