Written and directed by David Cronenberg, eXistenZ is about a video game designer whose new virtual reality game is the talk of the video game world only to be targeted by assassins. With a security guard to help her, the two go on the run while trying to save the game that she creates. The film is among of Cronenberg’s themes with new technology and its implications that recalls such earlier films as Videodrome. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Don McKellar, Sarah Polley, Callum Keith Rennie, Christopher Eccleston, and Willem Dafoe. eXistenZ is a mind-bending yet thrilling film from David Cronenberg.
Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a revered though reclusive game designer who is at a focus group to premiere her new virtual reality game. With help from a seminar leader (Christopher Eccleston) and a security guard named Ted Pikul (Jude Law) watching, things seem to go well until an assassin (Kris Lemche) tries to kill Allegra. With Ted saving her and taking her away from the place, the two go on the run as Allegra is worried about her game pod that she’s been working on for five years. Needing Ted to be in the game so she can check its status, she realizes that he doesn’t have a bio-port on his back. Turning to a black-market bio-port installer named Gas (Willem Dafoe) for help, Gas puts a bio-port hole in Ted’s back where things don’t work out.
Hiding out at the home of her mentor Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm), Kiri fixes Allegra’s pod as she and Ted begin to play the game. With Ted realizing he is in a very different world, he learns that in order to play the game. He had to abide by their rules and talk in cheesy dialogue to advance the story as he and Allegra get close. Meeting such characters like the strange Yevgeny Nourish (Don McKellar) and a resistance leader (Callum Keith Rennie), things get blurred as Ted wants to stop playing. Instead, things become more complicated and violent as Allegra believes something is up about her pod. In the game world, she encounters another pod which turns out to be very bad as it’s up to Ted to get her back only to realize they’re in the middle of a battle between anti-reality game groups and pro-realist groups that wants Allegra dead.
The film can be described as a strange, multi-layered film about a game designer whose life is in danger because of the work she’s created that further blurs the line between reality and fiction. During this journey, she goes on the run with a man that is sworn to protect her as he steps into a world that he doesn’t know about at all. In turn, they take on roles and say awful dialogue in order to play a game where only the designer knows what to do and there’s a guy who has never played a game before.
David Cronenberg creates a film where it’s about reality vs. fiction and technology being part of something organic where it can be connected to a body. The pod and other objects such as guns have a strange, organic look that acts less like a machine rather than something very real. Throughout the film, Cronenberg creates a lot of exposition in order for the Ted Pikul character to figure out what is going on. Exposition is fine though it does overwhelm the plot a bit as complex as a film like this due to its reality vs. fiction narrative. The script is truly fascinating for its development of characters as well as motives over why Allegra is being targeted. At the same time, Cronenberg understands the world of video games as he does create cheesy dialogue that is intended to help move the story.
Cronenberg’s direction definitely plays up to what is expected of him in terms of creating a world that is surreal but also fascinating. Though he sets it at a not-so-distant future, many of the objects that are made has this organic look and feel to them where the guns shoot out teeth as bullets while the pod looks like a body organ. Still, Cronenberg makes the real world and the video game world seem almost realistic as he often keeps the film straight in terms of camera work and compositions. It’s Cronenberg keeping a controlled approach to the filmmaking while using his odd, surreal ideas to help add a quirky element to the film. Cronenberg also likes to play with the idea of reality and fiction that becomes much more complex with a strange twist in the last 10 minutes of the film. While it’s not a perfect film due to the overuse of exposition at times, it is still one of Cronenberg’s enjoyable films.
Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky does a wonderful job with the cinematography from the grimy yet colorful lighting schemes in many of the film‘s interiors to the naturalistic camera work for some of the exterior scenes. Editor Ronald Sanders does an excellent job with the editing as he creates a mostly straightforward style to the film while maintaining a leisured pace for the film. Production designer Carol Spier, along with set decorator Elinor Rose Galbraith and art director Tamara Deverell, does some fine work with the set pieces such as Vinokur‘s home and the factory that Ted and Allegra work at in the game world.
Costume designer Denise Cronenberg does a very good job with the costumes such as the colorless yet stylish clothing of Allegra to the more casual look of Ted as it’s mostly very low key. Visual effects supervisor James Issac does an amazing job with the visual effects such as the mutant amphibians Allegra comes across to some of the creatures that is made in the world outside of the factory. The sound work of Ryan Shore and Glen Gauthier is pretty stellar for the atmosphere that is created from the suspenseful scenes to the intimate moments when the pod is making strange sounds. The film’s score by Howard Shore is superb for its sweeping orchestral arrangements to play up the film’s suspense as well as some low-key yet heavy scores to help underplay the drama.
The casting by Deirdre Bowen is brilliant for the appearances and people she put into the film such as Vik Sahay as Vinokur’s assistant, Kris Lemche as the assassin, Oscar Hsu as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant, Robert A. Silverman as a game character Allegra and Ted interacts with, Christopher Eccleston as seminar leader, and Sarah Polley in cameo as a mysterious woman towards the end of the film. Other notable appearances include Don McKellar as a mysterious pro-game leader named Yevgeny Nourish, Callum Keith Rennie as a resistance leader, Ian Holm as Allegra’s eccentric mentor, and Willem Dafoe as a creepy gas station owner/black market salesman.
Finally, there’s the duo of Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh who each give superb performances for the film. Law brings a wonderful sense of energy and naiveté as a security guard new to the world of virtual reality games. Law also brings a determination and drive to his character as it’s definitely one of his most overlooked performances. Leigh gives a gritty yet troubled performance as a gifted game designer who is desperate to save her game while showing Law’s character the ropes of playing and living the game. It is also one of Leigh’s darker performances as she also add a bit of sexiness to a strange character as she and Law have amazing chemistry together.
eXistenZ is a remarkable yet provocative film from David Cronenberg featuring terrific performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law. While it’s a film that doesn’t live up to some of Cronenberg’s great films, it is still a pretty original yet daring film that plays to his themes about the dangers of technology. Particularly as some of the ideas in the film about reality and fiction would have audiences thinking about Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception. In the end, eXistenZ is an excellent yet suspenseful film from David Cronenberg.
David Cronenberg Films: Stereo - Crimes of the Future - Shivers - Rabid - Fast Company - The Brood - Scanners - Videodrome - The Dead Zone - The Fly (1986 film) - Dead Ringers - Naked Lunch - M. Butterfly - Crash - Spider - A History of Violence - Eastern Promises - A Dangerous Method - Cosmopolis - Maps to the Stars - Crimes of the Future (2022 film)
The Auteurs #26: David Cronenberg Pt. 1 - Pt. 2
The Auteurs #26: David Cronenberg Pt. 1 - Pt. 2
© thevoid99 2011
Great review. This one comes in just a notch below Videodrome for me. Although I still love Cronenberg's recent films, It seems he's stuck now in his role as a hired gun for adaptations. I'm hoping he will return to his Sci-Fi/Horror roots again, if only just once.
I sort of disagree with that because for me, it fits in with what Cronenberg is interested in as a filmmaker. I too, would love for him to return to his roots in sci-fi and horror but I like where he's going. It's only because it's giving him the chance to try out different ideas and such.
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