Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Sarah Polley, Christopher Eccleston, Callum Keith Rennie. Horror/Sci-Fi, Canada/UK/France, 97 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on dual-format DVD & Blu-ray by 101 F ilms on 21st May 2018.
Much like with his 1983 cult classic VIDEODROME, when watching David Cronenberg’s pre-millennial sci-fi/body horror mash-up EXISTENZ you are expected to accept a lot of strange things in order for the story to work. For one thing, the virtual reality concept that is central to the plot was hot stuff back in 1999, when the internet was a fairly new thing and most consumers were naive to its capabilities, but this is virtual reality in the hands of a man whose previous dalliances with technology and how it affects humanity meant James Woods got video cassettes inserted into his stomach and Jeff Goldblum mutated into a giant insect who got fused with his own teleporting creation. With that in mind, EXISTENZ has virtual reality game players plugging bio-mechanical game pods into a port implanted in their spines in order to delve into this version of the online world and play out a game where the lines of reality and fiction blur and no one is sure who they can trust.
In 2018 these plot threads may sound a little overdone and obvious but in 1999 the likes of EXISTENZ and THE MATRIX were tapping into our fears of the impending new millennium where computers and machines were going to take over the world and render humans obsolete. But where THE MATRIX took the base ideas laid down by TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY and went off in an action direction with bullet time, martial arts and leather trench coats, basically laying down a whole cultural revolution for the approaching decade, EXISTENZ took those fears of the unknown and wrapped them up in David Cronenberg’s regular themes of sex – albeit penetration of the body rather than romantic lust – and flesh consuming the personality and twisting what is familiar into something alien and potentially deadly. It comes as a given within the first 10 minutes that the people in this vision of the then near-future have bio-ports implanted as if they were body modifications that everyone watching already has (one of the characters in the film does remark that having one fitted is like getting your ears pierced) and so from then on in all bets are off as Cronenberg introduces a master games programmer called Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh – THE HATEFUL EIGHT) who has created a next level game called eXistenZ that everyone in the world will soon be desperate to get their hands on. At the preview launch of the game there is an attempt on Allegra’s life which forces her to go on the run with her security guard Ted (Jude Law - THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY). However, Allegra’s fleshy game pod gets damaged after Ted is fitted with an illegal bio-port and sends it loopy so the two have to try and get the pod fixed whilst trying to avoid the various assassins that keep popping up. But who can the two fugitives trust and, more to the point, which world are they in – the real world or the virtual reality of Allegra’s game?
A fairly straightforward idea on paper but once David Cronenberg has put his spin on everything EXISTENZ becomes something of a weird mess as Allegra and Ted spiral into their own paranoid fantasies. However, what does stick out more than the surreal nature of Cronenberg’s script and the gooey special effects is how on the nose this film feels nowadays; back then, hard drive corruption, backing up software and online multiplayer games were the stuff of industry seminars and IT professionals, putting EXISTENZ firmly in the realm of science fiction but nowadays it feels decidedly on-the-nose and a bit too prophetical on the part of David Cronenberg. Then again, he also did something similar with VIDEODROME so perhaps he does know something we don’t, although the handgun made out of bones and teeth seems even more bizarre than James Woods’ flesh-like firearm from VIDEODROME.
Compared to Cronenberg’s earlier body horror masterpieces EXISTENZ does feel somewhat restrained in certain areas and yet is pure David Cronenberg in others. The sex metaphors are certainly there – the bio-ports and the inserting of phallic flesh plugs into the hole located at the base of the spine are obvious – but nudity and the sex act itself are unusually absent, the director seemingly preferring analogy over visual stimulation. Gore is also kept relatively minimal but when it is present it is excellently done, the practical effects looking superb in HD, especially in one scene where Allegra’s game pod is cut open and examined by Ian Holm, ironically resembling the facehugger autopsy scene in ALIEN. The casting is also fairly odd, with British actors Ian Holm, Jude Law and Christopher Eccleston having to put on accents to sound like their American co-stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Willem Dafoe, and although there may be a reason for some of the accents within the story it must be said that not everyone is up to the task of speaking in another dialect with a different accent.
As part of 101 Films’ new Black Label range, EXISTENZ is a suitably off-the-wall title to help sell a new collection and this dual-format package comes loaded with extra features – including a brand new interview with Christopher Eccleston along with archive ‘making-of’ featurettes, cast and crew interviews and an audio commentary from David Cronenberg – that don’t really help a lot when it comes to figuring out what the film is about but it is quite interesting to hear different people’s perspectives on it. As a package this edition of EXISTENZ will appeal to the Cronenberg die-hards who don’t already own it or wish to upgrade their old DVDs – and it is worth the upgrade if that is your intention – but if you have yet to experience it or are not quite in tune with David Cronenberg’s more left-field filmmaking ideas then EXISTENZ is quite a hard sell, being fairly impenetrable despite the recognisable cast and some fairly broad ideas, and it does run out of steam about 10 minutes before the final scene offers up an ending that worked better two decades ago than it does to today’s more savvy audiences. But you never know – this nicely packaged edition may just help the film find the audience that missed it the first time around in the post-THE MATRIX fallout.
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