eXistenZ, the stronger testament to ‘The Matrix’ of escapism from 1999

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Image courtesy Dimension Films

Before its 20-year anniversary passes, I’d like to write something about one of 1999’s more overlooked movies. This film I want to dwell on for a bit presents a rather hopeless version of “the matrix” that those might seek escape into from reality. It’s rather vital nowadays considering the real money-making in entertainment is in video games and not movies. Then there’s our dependence on such social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for validation of existence. One has to wonder if the reliance on such online portals is what it feels like to be lost in your subconscious. And no, my reference to “matrix,” is not a tribute to the Keanu Reeves movie that tried to rationalize such a world with a reason behind every surreal element it seemed to present. I’m talking about Canadian writer-director David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, which genuinely showed you what it feels like to be lost in the unconscious experience of entertainment and its powers of distraction without providing any discernible way out.

What’s special about the film can be found in its peculiar cinematic style, a flavor that can’t be imitated by any other filmmaker. Despite the constant obsession by many film critics about singular visions and auteur theory, there are few directors who really have an original style. Cronenberg is one of those filmmakers. He creates movies where characters speak a certain way and music (by Cronenberg regular Howard Shore) melds with action in another way, where lighting and mise-en-scène merge to turn the mundane surreal. Then, of course, there are lingering shots of images of broken bodies that aren’t so much sensationalistic as disturbing, as they speak to deeper almost primal thematic concerns. Hence, why his films are often referenced as “body horror.” But it’s more than startling cheap shock value for the filmmaker. For Cronenberg, the body truly stands for humanity’s temple. The filmmaker once told me why his movies are often so concerned with “the flesh,” a phrase often heard in his movies:

“It’s the primal fact of our existence,” he said during our phone interview promoting Maps to the Stars, “so it’s always been a significant thing for me, whether metaphorically or literally. When you think of it, what does a director direct? What do we photograph most in movies? Well, it’s the human body. We’re photographing flesh.”

Image courtesy Dimension Films

Metaphor and flesh came together eerily in eXistenZ. In an early script for this sci-fi movie about people so absorbed by role-playing games they can’t seem to recognize if they are in the real or virtual world there was slightly more emphasis on the name of the game system’s material: MetaFlesh. The portal to the gamers’ adventures look like Xbox controllers made of smooth pink skin, and players plug into them through an “UmbyCord,” a fleshy cable that connects them to the system via a “bioport” in their back. This man-made orifice — an act of self-mutilation created via a simple “surgical” procedure that apparently can even be done by a gas station attendant in coveralls (more on that later) — is located at the base of the spinal column. After you “port in” you find yourself in a new reality, as your body in the “real” world seems to fall into a trance-like hibernation.

The acting is fittingly heightened, as the dialogue vacillates from corny and chilling to dreamy and awkward. Characters can enter “game loops” standing in repetitive motions waiting for interaction, as Robert A. Silverman so hilariously demonstrates as a game store attendant named D’Arcy Nader. With wonderfully surreal performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh), Jude Law, Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe, eXistenZ creates a feeling of living in an alternate reality while never short-changing the mystery at the heart of the film, creating that sublime sense of helpless schizophrenia that is an existence filled with various levels of “reality.” I touched on this “schizophrenic cinema” in a long-form essay early in this blog’s life, which was prompted by a review of Take Shelter (2011), where I also address the narrative strengths of eXistenZ (Take Shelter offers powerful entry into film’s recent history of schizophrenic cinema).

In the spirit of the film medium, Cronenberg uses the language of cinema to create a rather seamless experience of the characters arriving in thier alternate realities. Here’s where the film’s mise-en-scène stands out in particular. As the characters connect to the system, the last place they laid down to connect to the system bleeds into the first scene of the game. It’s not some blurry flourish at the edges of the screen but subtle elements like a familiar doorway or staircase that was in the space the characters where in when they first ported into the system also appear in the same position in the new space they have walked into until the camera pans away from such elements. It speaks to how consciousness might affect a dream we are having or how familiarity is warped into something more personal and distinctive in our internal world.

Image courtesy Dimension Films

It makes for such an appropriate image because, in eXistenZ, gaming has become such a part of these characters’ lives that the act of playing games becomes their existential narratives. The film’s hero is a game designer named Allegra Geller (Leigh) who is on the run from militant “realist terrorists” who want to see her dead. She survives a failed assassination attempt early in the movie at a church, where the stage and the pews are filled with gamers eager to port into her latest creation. Of course gaming has become equivalent to spirituality in this world. Beliefs have been so warped in this version of reality that the assassin (Kris Lemche) has time to declare, “Death to the demoness Allegra Geller! Death to Antenna Research!” before firing a gun made of bone at her while she’s in a trance-like state leading a group of similarly zoned-out gamers through her latest creation in an unseen layer of unreality. His slogan echoes a line from Videodrome (1983), Cronenberg’s take on VHS, cable and satellite television warping humanity’s reality via a different form of entertainment medium.

The time the assassin has to exclaim his platitudes allows for two non-descript security personnel to turn him into Swiss cheese before he can fire a second shot. There’s a sense of zealotry that is further and unnervingly established in this early scene with its connection to violence and terror. With Allegra injured, it’s up to Ted Pikul (Law), a new and low-ranking publicist of Antenna Research, to spirit Allegra to somewhere safe.

A country gas station provides shelter and reveals Pikul’s shortcoming: he has no bioport. “I’ve been dying to play your games,” admits Pikul, “but I have this phobia about having my body penetrated … surgically.” Though still in a bit of a haze from her injury, Allegra chides him for working for her company and not knowing the experience of playing her game. It’s then up to the plainly named Gas (Dafoe) to rectify that with something that looks like a two-handed nail gun. It’s a humorous sight to see a grinning Dafoe armed with this thing reassuring his nervous customer with, “I’ve never crippled anyone yet.”

Image courtesy Dimension Films

There’s a strange sort of back to nature quality via a surreal cyber reality that makes eXistenZ a transporting movie unto itself, where biology has become enmeshed with technology. Besides the gun made of bones that fires teeth, oddities in this world creep in via shaggy peripheral elements as subtle as the stage-like lighting outside the gas station at night or as startling as the two-headed salamander that wanders up to coo at Allegra by an old-fashioned gas pump acting like a friendly stray dog. When Ted asks what the critter may be, she explains its presence in nature is a side-effect of the process of manufacturing the fleshy game pods.

But just as much as there is a sense of the primal, human subconscious in eXistenZ, there’s also an awareness of the overly concious and crass commercialism attached to escapist entertainment. Almost half-way through the film, Allegra finally notes that the only way to fix their situation is to play her game. Despite a sense of danger in their situation, some phrases in the dialogue are branded. The full reference to the “eXistenZ” game system is “eXistenZ by Antennae,” or as Allegra says, “eXistenZ only from Antennae.” When porting Pikul into her fleshy game pod, something goes wrong that “blows” her pod. “Pikul, in this pod is the only, the original version of ‘eXistenZ,’ an entire game system that cost 38 million to develop.” Then she adds almost under her breath as a sort of low-key punchline, “not including pre-release marketing costs.”

Dream-like elements continue to emerge as Ted and Allegra abscond from their unseen enemy (it is believed Gas was a double agent responsible for sabotaging Ted’s bio port). Ski boots are slung over the shoulder and used to transport and protect the game pods. “C’mon, Pikul, nobody actually physically skis anymore. You know that,” says Geller as they approach a ski lodge for some emergency repair work on Pikul’s bioport by Kiri Vinokur (Holm) a known ally to her company and expert bioport surgeon. They then wind up getting a motel room and lube up with saliva in a sly reference to sexuality in this realm. When they appear on the other side, their clothes and hair is slightly different, and their room turns into something like a barebones Game Stop, where options for systems can be found packed on blister cards on rotating display columns, similar to the ease of picking up a Hot Wheels car at a convenience store. It’s like wandering through a dream. “Look at this. Games I’ve never heard of,” says Geller as she looks over options of games before noting some titles, “‘Biological Father,’ ‘Hit By A Car,’ ‘Viral Ecstasy,’ ‘Chinese Restaurant.’”

Image courtesy Dimension Films

They ultimately pick up mini game consoles packaged on blister cards that slither into one’s spine and disappear. Then, there’s a deeper dive into the game where “reality” is once again shifted. You need great actors to pull off performances that will speak to these shifts because they are not only embodying versions of their characters but also versions that might seem fictional. For instance, two layers now into the game, gives Ted a confidence boost. This high speaks to the delight in the escapism from the previous “reality.” After a visit to the fish farms where rubbery, mutant fish are bred for the purpose of creating the game pods, a shared Chinese meal featuring mutant fish finds Ted reaching for bones to construct the same gun that was used to shoot Allegra in the “reality” that began this story. There’s something more than coincidence happening here. It’s the strongest representation of how experiences inform the subconscious to create a loop of re-experiencing trauma and how we define our reality based on it. This is more than computers ruling mankind. This is how the mind latches onto fabricated meta reality to subvert human existence.

In 1999, The Matrix showed viewers what could lie beyond our perceived reality if computers took over our lives. But with eXistenZ Cronenberg went deep into versions of our reality should we voluntarily follow computer games into the matrix. Cronenberg doesn’t need to explain it. He shows it powerfully with humor and disquiet. eXistenZ never tried to rationalize what was real by using exposition, which might satisfy those movie goers who want all questions answered. All you ever know is these people are lost in the matrix with no perceiving what reality actually is. The film comes across as a waking nightmare and a deeper warning than the more adventure-driven Reeves movie, which even though it may have revolutionized stunts in action films, did very little to slap at the faces of consumers enjoying escapism. The beauty of this Cronenberg film and many other of his film lies in its ability to entertain while also caution.

Hans Morgenstern

eXistenZ runs 97 minutes and is rated R. While The Matrix got a screening in Miami on it’s 20th anniversary, no one brought eXistenZ to any local big screens. Though I thank Miami Film Festival for inviting me to caption an April 25th Instagram tribute to the film, which inspired this essay (the social media existential matrix is real!). Various streaming services, however, offer the film for rent. You could even jump through the YouTube trailer above and rent it. Amazon Prime also offers it, and you will be supporting our website by renting it via this link. Finally, for the hardcore, there’s the Canadian Region 1 Alliance Atlantis release of the DVD, the only version that I know includes a commentary track by Cronenberg. There’s a pretty cheap new copy for sale now considering all the used copies are $300+, but you should verify with the seller if that is indeed the accurate version.

(Copyright 2019 by Independent Ethos. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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