Just as David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) came off as an organic reaction to a terrible new wasting disease, his new movie crystallizes the confusions of an epoch that can't decide whether it's the Entertainment Era, the Information Age or the Digital Millennium. Named for a fictional "game system" also called eXistenZ, eXistenZ takes place in a future where the explosion of game technology has merged machinery and biology. eXistenZ plugs right into a player's own nervous and metabolic systems and connects in open-ended ways to the participant's experiences and impulses. Cronenberg follows the game's creator, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and her bodyguard, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), as eXistenZ drops them into an alternate reality where Allegra's enemies -- let's call them vulgar realists -- turn out to be everywhere, armed to the teeth.
At a time when much of our national debate comes down to whether the country can tell a war from a computer game, eXistenZ seizes on that dangerous muddle and (unlike The Matrix) makes something witty and coherent out of it. It's Cronenberg's most assured and enjoyable movie in over a dozen years. Much of the film's fun comes from the way he creates a novel kind of sex comedy out of an uproariously messy sort of sci-fi invention. The eXistenZ game pod, made from synthetic DNA and amphibian eggs, looks like a flesh-covered kidney with multiple nipples. The players link to it through a gnarled, enormous, perversely phallic "UmbyCord." And the UmbyCord links to them through their individual "Bioport," which on the inside connects to the spine and on the outside quivers like a hungry orifice. When the players palpate their game pods or arouse their Bioports, what ensues is somewhere between the autoerotic and the automatic, and at times resembles what Monica would call "messing around."
The setup gives us Leigh's Allegra, goddess of game development, preparing to play her new masterpiece, eXistenZ, with a focus group gathered in a church hall in the sticks. In this creepy netherworld, a test match for a game system has elements of Judgment and Election Day, and maybe opening night. Yet the momentous aura suffuses the melodrama with sardonic humor rather than inflating and busting it up.
The supporting players look totally committed and involved, but they all seem to be missing key ingredients -- it's as if they need a Bioport to complete them. Cronenberg builds this perception into the ambience and the narrative, rather than making it a point about our addiction to sensation; this way, he allows viewers to maintain a skeptical distance without taking the sting out of his laughs and jolts. His abettors in this seductive form of cinematic alienation are Peter Suschitzky and Carol Spier, contemporary masters of cinematography and production design, who manage to keep the settings suitably generic -- like, for instance, the rural church hall -- while imbuing them with the unsettling fairy-tale shades of a haunted house in a deep wood.
Without giving too much away, it's fair to report that a would-be assassin disrupts the initial match with the cry "Death to the demon Allegra!" That sends Allegra hurtling through the countryside with Ted, a part-time security man and full-time PR geek. More than just nurse her own wound, Allegra wants to save her true life's blood: her game system. She fears it has been damaged, even infected during the attack; to check it out, she needs to play with someone else she's sure is "friendly." So poor squeamish Ted gets fitted with a Bioport and jumps spine-first into a virtual world he has never set foot in before. The eXistenZ game system sets him and Allegra down into a weird arcade and then into someplace called the Trout Factory, where the innards of watery mutants are used to manufacture game pods. As things turn out, the same forces that catalyzed the assassin in the church hall exist in this alternate reality. To Allegra's foes, eXistenZ is the antithesis of authentic existence and Allegra the anti-Christ. What starts as a euphoric trip becomes Allegra and Ted's not-so-excellent adventure.
All of Leigh's quirks work for her as Allegra: For once, she really seems to be creating a character out of self-absorption and dreaminess and a fragile, hard-to-pin-down sexuality. And Law, who was over-the-top (or under-the-bottom) as Bosie in Wilde (1997), appears to enjoy playing a regular guy. Leigh is a bit claylike, Law a smidgen plasticine, yet those qualities fit an artist who forms herself through work and a yuppie who aims to get ahead in a brave new world. They enable Cronenberg to twist the film this way and that without losing its integrity.
The central joke of the movie isn't hard to figure out; what's fun is how many gags Cronenberg can funnel into it, from alarming special-effects slapstick to beautifully timed routines about the nature of eXistenZ, er, existence. In the virtual world, when Ted resists following the rules of the game, he throws the other characters into a "game loop" in which they repeat previous behavior -- it's a primal riff on philosopher Henri Bergson's theory of comedy as disrupted habit. But not all the curlicues are joyrides. At one point the game impels Ted to commit murder. He resists, in vain, but Allegra eggs him on and urges him to savor the act. In a nonmoralistic way, the film explores how the extreme excitement of gamesmanship -- aesthetic or kinetic -- bleeds through into life.
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.
Directed by David Cronenberg. With Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.