Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi "eXistenZ"

Insert Quarter Where?

By Devin D. O'Leary

APRIL 26, 1999:  David Cronenberg is not the kind of filmmaker whose work you go check out on a full stomach. Cronenberg's résumé (Shivers, The Brood, Rabid, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers) lurches from one queasy horror assault to another. Not satisfied to churn out the usual stalk-and-slash, Cronenberg has stuck to his own unique, highbrow, psychosexual ruminations on how the mind (usually horribly warped) affects the body (usually hideously mutilated). Illnesses, fears, desires and psychoses are all made flesh in the world of David Cronenberg. The creepy Canadian stepped a bit beyond the pale last year, though, with the largely unwatchable sicko sex romp Crash. Although the film highlighted all of Cronenberg's usual obsessions, it lacked the otherworldly visual metaphors that Cronenberg is famous for.

After a couple questionable literary detours (Crash and the similarly skewed Naked Lunch), Cronenberg returns to familiar territory with eXistenZ, a freakshow sci-fi film mixing virtual reality, organic video games and mutated frogs. The film fits solidly in with Cronenberg's earlier oeuvre and should find a small, but receptive audience among brainy gore aficionados.

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Allegra Geller, a futuristic video game designer whose latest virtual reality romp, eXistenZ, is about to become the newest rage. Unfortunately, during a testing session, a crazed "reality" fanatic tries to assassinate the game goddess. We can tell right off the bat we're in prime Cronenberg territory because, instead of the usual Smith & Wesson, the assassin employs a nasty flesh-covered gun that shoots human teeth. Allegra now finds herself on the run from assorted unknown assassins with a befuddled marketing assistant (Jude Law) in tow.

From this strange beginning, Cronenberg spins a dark, dingy anti-matter version of Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass. Allegra believes that her precious video game has been damaged in the assassination attempt. The only way to check on it is to go inside the game with her reluctant bodyguard and playtest the thing.

Unlike other recent movie attempts at "virtual reality," the computerized world of Allegra's eXistenZ game doesn't even bother tapping into traditional sci-fi video games. In fact, it looks exactly like a David Cronenberg movie--just like the real world, only bloodier, slimier and a whole lot more icky. Which brings up the important question, "Why in the hell would anyone want to spend time inside a David Cronenberg movie?" I like watching his movies, but the idea of being able to smell, touch or taste them just flips my flapjacks. I'll stick with Space Invaders, thank you.

Before long, our hero and heroine are engaged in a computerized Mobius loop of murder, mystery and the aforementioned mutated frogs. Events inside the game soon begin to mirror events outside the game (or is it vice versa?), but the expected question of "What is real and what is virtual reality?" soon becomes moot. Even at his most documentary-like, Cronenberg rarely dwells anywhere near the real world. Speculating on whether the gory, flesh-obsessed world inside the game or the gory, flesh-obsessed world outside the game is real is a largely pointless exercise.

Fans of Videodrome will recognize a few complementary themes at play. Whereas Videodrome seemed to argue for the abandonment of reality in favor of the "New Flesh" of TV's fantasy world, eXistenZ appears to argue the opposite. Computers and their virtual reality environs are dragging mankind further and further away from the real world, allowing problems like environmental pollution, genetic tampering and corporate greed to slip past us, unnoticed.

Of course, that's just the highbrow interpretation of Cronenberg's work. Those looking for your basic psychosexual gore film will have plenty to wallow in here. For Cronenberg, no mere Sony Playstation will suffice as a prop. The "game pods" used to play eXistenZ must be disgusting, fleshy creations "grown" from mutated amphibian DNA. Players jack into the games by plugging them, umbilical cord-like, into their spines. There's nothing David Cronenberg likes more than a good orifice, and these spine sockets give him plenty of unsettling insertion scenes to ogle.

If this sounds like a fun way to spend a Friday evening, check it out--just don't get the popcorn.


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