David Cronenberg: eXistenZ (1999)

eXistenZ had the unfortunate situation of arriving in theatres in the spring of 1999, a couple of months after The Matrix became a cinematic phenomenon (and just before another virtual reality film, The Thirteenth Floor, arrived later that May). Lacking the astounding special effects and metatextual pop-culture references that made The Matrix the surprise success it was, eXistenZ was simply branded another part of a trend of films dealing with virtual reality, its raison d’être assumed as being primarily about the line between reality and simulation.

Watching eXistenZ years ago, I found it confusing, its fleshy grotesqueries seemed oddly out of place in a film ostensibly about video games and technology. While eXistenZ could at its most basic be described as the story of a superstar video game designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who must go on the run after an attempt on her life from those who oppose her work—the so-called “Realists” in the film—it is unintuitively devoid of screens, digital devices, or binary code. Instead, eXistenZ shares with Cronenberg’s earlier work an interest in the bodily, the sexual, and the deviant. It suggests a different kind of relationship between humans and our technological creations, one that attempts to challenge the dualities a film like The Matrix poses.

The truth is that eXistenZ has more in common with Cronenberg’s earlier films than the other virtual reality films of 1999. It has more than a touch of the prophetic, sharing the provocative exploration of technology and desire that makes Videodrome (1983), for instance, such a continuingly fascinating film years after its release. eXistenZ similarly explores the role that technology might play in fulfilling our darkest desires, as well as furthering the link between sex and death, that immortal pairing of eros and thanatos that has become a hallmark of the Cronenbergesque. Chris Rodley’s description of Cronenberg’s previous film, Crash (1996), in the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, as a story “in which humans realign their minds, bodies and sexuality to dominant technology” could equally serve as a concise summary for eXistenZ.

To really appreciate what Cronenberg is doing in the film, his first fully original screenplay and concept since Videodrome at that point, I had to let go of my expectations of what a film about video games and virtual reality should be like. Nearly two decades after the film debuted, the further we become immersed in the world of the Internet, the more we come to see that the transformations wrought by new configurations our technology poses are changing us as human beings. The most revolutionary ideas in eXistenZ suggest that rather than merely serve up wish fulfilment and promote an increasingly disembodied “existence,” the technologies we use open up new relations to our own desires and biology: think of the effect of the internet in promoting the increasingly close relationship between pornography and video games, and the smartphone apps that discipline and indulge our desires for food, exercise, and even our relationship to geography and space.

In essence, with eXistenZ, the thoroughly secular Cronenberg grants an almost religious, transcendent quality to our new technologies, at least in the way that we engage them. Thus it’s appropriate that the film opens with Allegra Geller in a church setting, on the stage/altar, preparing a chosen few from the audience of video game fans to test her newest magnum opus: “eXistenZ,” a game experience that will be delivered via an exclusive console, a fleshy, organic looking bionic game pod. Participants enter the world of “eXistenZ” via connecting with the game pod through a kind of umbilical cord that plugs into the users’ “bio port,” an anal-type opening in the character’s back.

Of course, as the participants gather on stage and begin, a Realist assassin opens fire on the “demoness,” as he calls her, shooting Geller in the shoulder. A PR employee, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), observing the whole thing from the back of the church, is then pressed into service to preserve “eXistenZ” and save Geller’s life. At this point, the beats of the film are quickly established, and we move in a single cut to Pikul and Geller on the run, setting up the film as part fugitive road movie, part religious pilgrimage, and all-in-all pretty wild and unpredictable.

The couple pulls over and Pikul helps Geller remove the assassin’s projectile from her shoulder, revealing it to be a human tooth. The assassin's gun, like the game pods themselves, is made from biological material. Throughout eXistenZ the bones and gristle of human and animal bodies are fashioned into technology, game pods and weapons. Ostensibly, the biological nature of the weapon allowed the assassin to evade the metal detectors in the test demonstration, but it becomes a repeated motif. On the one hand Cronenberg is crafting the ultimate reminder of cyborg theory, positing the devices we use as literal extensions of our body. In a film that will play and challenge classically Cartesian notions of how we can identify reality, one is also reminded of René Descartes’ other famous theory, the idea that animals were little more than machines (“Bête machine”). In eXistenZ, rather than remain comfortably in a position of superiority to technology, the suggestion remains that the human body can be made into a machine, and that blurring the line between machine and body need not elevate the machine to our level, but make the idea of a hierarchy suspect entirely.

This fits into a long-standing Cronenbergian trope that sees evolution as non-teleological. Again, this isn’t overt; similarly to how Cronenberg treated the idea of human development in Videodrome and Crash, eXistenZ portrays developments in technology as fundamentally impacting our biological-sexual nature. Those who fail to transform, who fail to evolve, are simply irrelevant. They do not participate in the “new flesh,” but their purity is no guarantee of survival. It’s not about being anti- or pro-technology; it’s just about change.

Anxious to test her game pod, Geller asks Pikul to join her in “eXistenz,” and it is revealed that  Pikul is one of those who has not transformed: he has no bio port. Thus, the couple visits Gas, played with predatory glee by Willem Dafoe. Gas, who is a gas station mechanic, “only on the most pathetic level of reality,” as he notes, is supposed to be able to fit Pikul with a black market bio port that will allow him to play the game with Geller. However, Gas proves to be an assassin, putting a faulty bio port in Pikul and attempting to kill Geller to claim the bounty on her. Pikul ends up killing Gas to save Geller, and they flee to visit Kiri Vinokour (Ian Holm), Geller’s mentor, who installs a bio port and allows Pikul and Geller to enter “eXistenZ” to test if it is still ok.

At this point, the characters start to descend deeper and deeper into the game, having “micro ports” installed so they can go to another level of experience, a game within the game (reminiscent of the levels of dreams in Christopher Nolan’s Inception). The experience of the game is almost indistinguishable from reality, and only the mechanical behaviour of non-player characters is a clear give away that one is in a game and not just reality.

In this way eXistenZ again asks us to question if one is actually experiencing reality instead of just an illusion. It makes manifest the fact that we treat people as if they are real because they act real. But at this point in the film already, characters have begun to behave in ways that run counter to both our expectations of their behaviour and their stated moral sense. For instance, Ted kills Gas before he has his bio port properly fitted and enters “eXistenz.” But doesn’t his killing a man, something he has not done before, indicate that he has already begun to operate on the logic of the game?

Within the game within-the-game they attempt to sabotage a pod factory. There they meet a contact who claims to be part of the Realist conspiracy to destroy “eXistenZ,” Yevgeny Nourish (Don McKellar). In one of the film’s most memorable and grotesque scenes, Pikul and Geller find themselves at a Chinese restaurant in the game within the game. Nourish suggests that Pikul order a lunch special, and Pikul fashions himself a weapon out of the inedible bones and parts in his meal with which he subsequently kills a waiter who he believes to be an enemy character.

Of course, who can one trust in the game? Are they non-player characters or avatars of people trying to undermine “eXistenZ”? How does one win in this scenario? What is the purpose? Pikul and Geller return to the pod factory and discover a diseased looking pod that Geller attempts to plug into. When that fails and the character’s awaken back in Vikour’s lodge, they discover another diseased pod. From this point on the film is replete with imagery of infection and disease being spread from interaction with pods and cords. On the most simplistic level, it could be read as an allegory for HIV/AIDS and other sexually or intravenously transmitted diseases (as The Fly was as well). However, given that in Cronenberg’s films, the line between infection and evolution is hardly clear, it can also be seen as an example of how the technology penetrates and changes us in ways we cannot anticipate; think of the parasite in Cronenberg’s early film Shivers or the physical transformation of Rose in Rabid; consider Seth Brundle’s transformation in The Fly. Sickness is at one level a way of describing transformations that destroy our understanding of what a “healthy” body is, but may in fact be a kind of growth (e.g. cancer is a kind of mutation), or a progression on another level. It fits into eXistenZ’s interest in the relation between technology and evolution.

In the end, the betrayals and reversals of identity begin to pile up on multiple levels of the game, and Geller and Pikul themselves take on different roles than we assumed them to have the entire film. After Pikul reveals himself to be a Realist assassin the whole time, Geller claims she knew this and kills Pikul. They all awaken in the church, where all the characters we have met are revealed to be testing an electronic virtual reality game, created by Nourish, called “transCendenZ.” But the film is not content to end on this final pulling back to another level of reality. Pikul and Geller kill Nourish and his assistant Merle (Sarah Polley), leaving the character who played the waiter (Oscar Hsu) to ask: “...are we still in the game?”

Ultimately, Cronenberg isn’t really suggesting that we should question our reality all the time and drive ourselves mad in trying to ascertain if reality is a Cartesian demonic illusion (given Descartes’s famous thought experiment about a malevolent demon masking our reality, it’s ironic that Geller is called the “demoness”). Rather, a bit of dialogue reveals the film’s more interesting suggestion:

Pikul: We're both stumbling around together in this unformed world, whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don't understand.

Geller: That sounds like my game, all right.

Pikul: That sounds like a game that's not gonna be easy to market.

Geller: But it's a game everybody's already playing.

The situation that Pikul describes could be our own reality, hence Geller’s ironic response that we’re all already playing. What the film suggests is that it doesn’t really matter if it’s a game or not. It’s how we act. Do we act like we’re in the game? How does our behaviour in real life follow “rules” and “objectives” that we rarely spend time thinking about?

eXistenZ has a lot in common with the work of science fiction author Philip K. Dick, in that it’s less about the mind-trip and solving puzzles, than interrogating what it means to be human, and the way our perception of the world is more fragile than we think. In fact, at one point on a bag of fast food there is a reference to “Perky Pat,” the name of a corporation in Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a novel about multiple layers of reality and people’s attempt to escape reality (through drugs rather than VR). Like Dick’s work, eXistenZ frames these ideas with religious iconography (of course, Dick truly believed in a Gnostic demonic conspiracy, having believed he had a revelation). Given that Cronenberg is explicitly anti-religious, eXistenZ suggests that any transcendence will only be gained through transformation and technology, and that it is likely to be just as illusory and may even result in the ending of what we think of as “human.”

It makes sense that eXistenZ wasn’t a huge hit. It’s a strange film, more interested in ideas and structures than character or action. Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh do a good job of portraying their character’s encounters with each new transformation or twist with a mixture of blank incredulity and resigned affect. It’s clear that Cronenberg isn’t really interested in video games as they actually are, but rather in games as they function as a major human engagement with technology. Given the development of video games and the role that gamer and online culture has played in the last two decades since the film came out, the film feels more prescient now that it did at the time.

Still, it’s a hard film to enjoy at times. eXistenZ lacks the emotional core of The Fly and the pure exploration of the sickness of human behaviour that lends Videodrome or Crash their visceral thrill. Yet, eXistenZ suggests that the banal engagement with technology we all engage with, while not as extreme as the sadomasochistic behaviour in Videodrome or the perversion of Crash, is transforming us as humans.

eXistenZ would mark the end of a particular phase of filmmaking for Cronenberg. While three years later, in Spider, he would explore psychological themes and shifting perceptions, eXistenZ feels uniquely Canadian and acts as a kind of bookend to his most explicitly Cronenbergesque themes of the body, flesh, and technology. While later films are thematically consistent, eXistenZ is the last time to date that he would create an original story that so specifically addresses these themes. For that reason, I find it an important and fascinating film, if not one that particularly moves me or challenges me like his earlier ones.

8 out of 10

eXistenZ (1999, Canada/UK/France)

Written and directed by David Cronenberg; starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Don McKellar, Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Callum Keith Rennie, Christopher Eccleston, Robert A. Silverman, Oscar Hsu.