eXistenZ (1999) Review

(Excerpt from my Cronenberg paper)

eXistenZ is a unique picture to say the least, but it is no doubt a Cronenberg film. It has technology and man melding, sexual under and overtones, and some creepy insects, all Cronenberg tropes. In his previous film Videodrome Cronenberg played on the idea of not only technology and man melding, but also humans creating new realities for ourselves through technology. He’s said that the ultimate goal is to remove the screen, allowing that separation between virtual and real to become indistinguishable. In eXistenZ we get that removed screen as now virtual reality takes over our brains. It’s done so through bio-ports and organic technology, literally becoming an extension of ourselves.

Cronenberg’s said that guns are extensions of people’s hands, phones extensions of our mouths and ears. After all technology comes from us, it’s not some foreign thing that invades our lives. This is portrayed quite well with some unique production design. The organic gun is made out of bones and looks like the extension of a hand, the phone (that we see briefly) looks like some puffy tissue, almost like ear wax and the cords that connect the people to the flesh colored pod clearly resemble umbilical cords. The color scheme of the clothes, walls, etc… in the testing room all have a similar flesh color to them too.

The film has a unique way of covering up what would typically be called pitfalls by incorporating them back into the movie. The inconsistent actions of the characters are merely the game forcing them to do certain things. The twists and turns of the plot that have little foreshadowing are akin to how video games actually progress and a character even remarks when emerging from the game that they were hard to follow. Any unknowns over the course of the movie are not only covered by the fact that it was all a game, but double covered in that it still could be a game. These unknowns play into the intentionally open ending, whether we would like answers or not. For as much world-building as Cronenberg does though, it’s still not enough. We only see the world from the perspective of a few characters and it’s never quite explained what’s normal or not. Is the world totally ruled by the Virtual Reality companies? How many people do have bio-ports? How are the games actually programmed? It leaves us asking more questions than the characters, but we’re left with no answers at the end when it’s revealed that everything we had questions about might not have answers since it’s all a game.

The actual testing event itself has the unique feel of not a game testing site, but rather a self-help seminar. This all plays into the theme of virtual reality being more real than reality and where the lines are drawn. The people in the testing room treat Allegra like she’s a god of sorts, and in a way she is. She literally built the worlds that they live their lives in and prefer and they worship her for that. When they meet up with Gas, he’s talking about how his “real life” is the lowest form of reality for him and Cronenberg puts him in a doorway (showing he’s trapped) in a small part of the frame (showing how empty the world around him is. Once she and Ted enter the virtual world, Cronenberg puts an emphasis on shots of their hands touching things, a sign that things feel real, despite not being and continues this motif after they enter the “real world.” The realities start to blur together and as more and more things get thrown at us we become uncertain of where things are going to go and suspense is effectively created.

Sex is an integral part of the seduction of the Virtual reality. The very plugging in is very sexual and the inclusion of saliva solidifies this. On top of that, the characters they become in the game start to have sex and for Ted (the audience stand-in) he is literally being seduced by the game so that’ll he’ll accept it. When he gets back to the real world Allegra acts just as seductive as in the game, tipping us off that something might be off.

Overall, eXistenZ is an unusual trip into the world of Virtual Reality, akin to both The Matrix and Inception, but of course with the Cronenberg twist. His use of odd technologies to emphasize our bodily connection, religious and sexual themes to get us invested in the virtual reality and confusing twists to make us doubt actual reality all serve to put us in the place of Ted and in a way experience this odd trip for ourselves. It’s open-ending may be unsatisfying, but it’s designed to be that way.