Great Pods

Comic eXistenZ turns erotic mind games into sigh-fi

Blithe, bleak joker that he is, Cronenberg takes an adage that usually comes draped in positive platitudes -- "art changes you" -- and stands it on its head, letting all the loose change roll out. The results are some of the deftest pieces of caricature he has yet committed to film. Willem Dafoe is surprisingly robust and hilarious as a gas station attendant known as Gas, who feels that Allegra's game systems have transformed him. And Ian Holm, after his overrated bout of emotional rigidity in The Sweet Hereafter (1997), regains his satiric twinkle as an enigmatic Eastern European game-pod surgeon who jokes that dealing with materials such as amphibian eggs has turned him and his assistant into "glorified veterinarians."

There's no question that Cronenberg's heart is with the game-makers. The script refers to the plot to eliminate Allegra as a Fatwa (a la Salman Rushdie), and Cronenberg peppers the film with potshots at the commercial and competitive pressures put on popular artists and at the obsessive perfectionism they inflict on themselves. Yet he doesn't let himself, or Allegra, off the hook. Even in an amusement such as eXistenZ, where game parts are sex toys, Cronenberg wants art to play with fire -- and artists to shoulder the risks. This time out, the result is a movie mind game with an erotic tingle.

Rated R.
Directed by David Cronenberg. With Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe.

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