eXistenZ (1999)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

Saying that the films of David Cronenberg are weird is like saying that water is wet — it just doesn’t begin to describe the situation. Cronenberg has made a reputation by creating truly unique films that challenge the viewer — not only mentally but at times the viewer is also challenged to keep their eyes on the screen. Cronenberg now brings us "eXistenz" (pronounced egg-zis-TENS), a film that offers a new take on virtual reality. It may seem like a bad idea to bring out a virtual reality film in the same year that we had "The Matrix", but rest assured that Cronenberg’s spin on VR will be like no one else’s.

The title "eXistenZ" refers to a new game that has been developed by Antenna Research. "eXistenZ" is no video game. It is a totally immersive experience where all of one’s senses are stimulated. The film opens with a test group trying out the game. We are introduced to Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the designer of "eXistenZ". We learn that Allegra is the queen of game design and is treated as a celebrity. "eXistenZ" isn’t played with the VR helmets or gloves that we are used to. In the film, most people have a bio-port in their back at the base of the spine. This small hole is used to insert cables (tentacles?) from the game-pod directly into the player. The game pod itself is a fleshy object with small nodules, which squeals when touched.

As the demonstration begins, an assassin with a very unusual gun makes an attempt on Allegra’s life. She is whisked away by Ted Pikul (Jude Law of "Gattaca"), a PR intern who was just helping out with security. Now Allegra and Ted are on the run. It seems that the gaming competition is intimidated by Allegra and "eXistenZ" and wants to see them both stopped. Not knowing who can be trusted, Allegra and Ted search for a safe-haven.

Allegra fears that her pod has been damaged, so she convinces Pikul that he must test "eXistenZ" with her. Although reluctant at first, Ted is convinced and he (and the audience) are whisked into the bizarre and fascinating world of "eXistenZ". But, soon Ted realizes that VR can be very real and he begins to doubt his own sanity. Ted and Allegra must not only escape the assassins, but they must survive "eXistenZ" as well.

For Cronenberg fans, "eXistenZ" is a welcome gift. After stumbling with "M. Butterfly" and "Crash", Cronenberg returns to directing his own material and the results are a return to his old themes of technology versus human nature. Cronenberg takes a big risk by making a movie about virtual reality gaming that doesn’t include any shots of a computer. The idea of the fleshy game-pod is presented at the very beginning, and its presented in such a low-key manner that the audience just accepts it (while being grossed out by it).

Cronenberg seems very comfortable with this material and confidently takes the viewer through the switches and changes in the story. Unfortunately, this is where the film’s problems begin. Once the film moves into the gaming world, the story becomes very convoluted and at times, hard to follow. The shifts from reality to non-reality are handled well visually, but story-wise they are a little too jarring. Unlike similar films like "Jacob’s Ladder" or the underrated "Brain Dead", the jumps in perception in "eXistenZ" seem at the same time to be both random and awfully convenient. This makes the film comes across as both confusing and trite at the same time.

The saving grace of "eXistenZ" is the ending (which I will not give away). The ending ties everything together and suddenly the whole film makes sense. (Some may have found the ending predictable, but it surprised me.) As with "The Usual Suspects", the great ending leaves you feeling that the film was better than it actually was (the ending should always be great, since that’s the last thing the viewer will see). Unfortunately, some people may not be able to sit through the film to get to the great ending.

Due to the ending, the film actually works much better upon a second viewing. Once you know what’s going on, you can spot the subtle (and not so subtle) cues throughout the film that point towards the ending. For example, at the 23:04 point in the movie, Allegra does some bizarre things (touching walls, smelling the air), that just seem weird upon the initial viewing, but are very clever once you know what’s going on. I realize that it’s hard enough to get people to watch a mediocre and confusing film once, but if you were intrigued by "eXistenZ" upon your first viewing, then give it a second chance.

Many of the themes in "eXistenZ" echo the ideas from Cronenberg’s earlier work, "Videodrome." The idea from "Videodrome" of man and machine melding, with Max Renn’s body becoming a conduit for Betamax tapes, is taken further in "eXistenZ" with the idea that the player is part of the gaming hardware. Cronenberg also makes a statement about commercialism as "eXistenZ" is always referred to as "’eXistenZ’ by Antenna", hinting that the company is more important than the game itself. Cronenberg also sends some subtle messages about identity inhibitions. In the real world, Allegra wears pants. But in the game, her pants have become a short skirt (made from the same material) and her shirt is now more revealing. Also, her hair has changed taking on a more tussled, less controlled look. Cronenberg uses this to tell us that VR can be a place where we can escape from our real selves — which could be a bad thing or a good thing.

As Allegra Geller, Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a strong, low-key performance. She does a good job of balancing the shy game designer with the wanton adventurer Allegra becomes in "eXistenZ." Jude Law is good as the bumbling PIkul; a man who is not one, but two worlds that he doesn’t understand. There are some nice performances from Willem Dafoe (creepy as ever) and Ian Holm, as people that Allegra and Ted meet during their escape.

One thing that must be mentioned about "eXistenZ" is the production design and special effects. As I mentioned earlier, we buy the game-pod because of the way that it’s woven into the story, but also it just looks real. The pod and the assorted creatures throughout the film have a very organic look to them that doesn’t at all seem like latex. This lends an air of credibility to the confusing story. Also, the sets (especially the game store) and props (like the mini-pod), which were designed by Carol Spiers, all seem very realistic. It’s quite odd that the environment in a VR movie would come across as so real.

The Dimension Home Video DVD of "eXistenz" offers some features which are not listed, or listed incorrectly on the box. The film is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1 (although I’ve seen it listed as 1.77:1) and is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TVs. The framing appears to be accurate, as there is no warping of the frame. The picture itself is clear, with some very fine grain apparent at certain points. The film has a very crisp look to it and all of the colors are presented in a very realistic fashion.

The audio on the DVD is full <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1, not <$DS,Dolby Surround> as listed on the box. The sound is very good, with all of the dialogue being clear and comprehensible. The surround sound is active throughout the film, and works very well especially in crowd scenes. While "eXistenZ" may not live up to some of Cronenberg’s earlier work, it is certainly a step in the right direction. Although the story is muddled and confusing, the film has a fascinating premise and the great ending ultimately saves the film. The DVD of "eXistenZ" presents a satisfactory transfer of the film, which will only help to improve the viewing experience. OK, it’s now time to return to the real world…or is this the real world?