Review: “eXistenZ” (Film)

2016 Artwork Existenz review

Well, it’s been ages since I last reviewed a film, so I thought that I’d re-watch an interesting cyberpunk movie that I haven’t seen in years. I am, of course, talking about David Cronenburg’s “eXistenZ“.

I remember seeing this film on TV when I was about fourteen or fifteen and being absolutely amazed by it. Sometime later, I got a second-hand copy of it on DVD but never got round to rewatching it until shortly before writing this article.

I should probably point out that the UK DVD edition of this film that I’ve got actually automatically loads your internet browser and displays an advert for the Sega Dreamcast when you put it in a computer. Although this was annoying (since it wiped out my previous browsing session), it was also an amusing piece of retro nostalgia too.

This review will also contain MAJOR SPOILERS…..

Anyway, onto the film….

“eXistenZ” begins with a famous game designer called Allegra Gellar (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) giving a public demonstration of her latest virtual reality game (called, unsurprisingly “eXistenZ”).

The game itself is housed inside some kind of organic “game pod” that the players access via an umbilical cord that is connected to a port in their spinal columns. Well, it’s a David Cronenburg film, what do you expect?

About halfway through the demonstration, a deranged member of the audience pulls out a strange-looking gun and shouts “Death to the demoness Allegra Gellar!” before shooting her in the shoulder. In the chaos that follows, Allegra ends up fleeing the demonstration with Ted Pikul, a security guard (played by Jude Law). They hide out in the surrounding countryside, and Allegra begins to wonder if her game pod was damaged during the shooting.

Of course, the only way to check that the game is still working properly is for Allegra and Ted to enter the virtual world of “eXistenZ”….

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it both is and isn’t a perfect example of late 1990s cyberpunk cinema. Although the film revolves around a virtual reality world, there’s relatively little “Matrix”-like futurism here.

Not only is all of the technology (even the mobile phones) made out of genetically-engineered bio-matter but, unlike virtually everything in the cyberpunk genre, the film takes place entirely in a rural setting. There aren’t any rain-soaked, neon-lit mega cities here. For some reason that is never fully explained, all of the computer engineers and high-tech low-lives live in the countryside. It’s a surprisingly innovative and unique take on the cyberpunk genre.

Being a David Cronenburg film, the biological technology is used as a brilliant source of both body horror and/or sexual symbolism. Most of this symbolism went completely over my head when I saw the film for the first time, but I noticed it in virtually all of the bio pod scenes when I re-watched the film.

Although this is a film about technology (and how it can affect our thoughts, our free will etc..) the scenes set in virtual reality have more of a “realistic” dream-like quality to them. People act in strange ways, the settings are an uncanny combination of real and surreal, and there are other strange changes too.

Some of this surrealism is kept fairly subtle, like the fact that Allegra is pretty much perfectly ok a few minutes after receiving a fairly serious gunshot wound to the shoulder near the beginning of the film. Of course, this might just be the usual cinematic convention of near-invincible main characters, but the fact that the injury is relatively bloodless and doesn’t even seem to be that painful could be a hint that the film starts within the world of the game. A question which is left tantalisingly open at the end of the film….

The whole point of this film is that the characters can never quite tell whether they’re playing the game or are in real life, so this “realistic” dream-like quality works really well. In fact, one of the things I love about this film is the fact that it’s one of the few films that explores the concept of an “unreliable reality“.

One thing that surprised me when I re-watched this film is that the editing was a lot faster than I remembered. This film was made in the good old days when films actually had editors that prevented them from becoming bloated three-hour things. God, I miss those days! Even so, the editing can seem a little bit too quick at some points in the film – almost as if more revealing pieces of dialogue have been removed from the film.

This brings me on to the subject of characterisation – there’s a lot less of it in this film than I remember. Yes, some of this is probably to do with the fact that the characters’ behaviour is occasionally directly controlled by the game’s programming, but the characterisation seemed slightly more superficial than I remembered.

This is also possibly a reflection of the fact that the characters think that they’re playing a game, where the normal rules of reality don’t apply. For example, in one scene late into the movie, Allegra guns down another character in cold blood because he annoyed her (by suggesting that she defect to a rival tech company). Ted is, quite naturally, shocked by this – only for Allegra to nonchalantly comment that it’s just a game. Then, in a chilling twist, Ted wonders whether they’re still in the game or not.

Even so, the best character in this film by far has to be Allegra Gellar. She’s nerdily hedonistic, slightly obsessive and also a total badass at the same time. Seriously, although her dialogue and personality seem a little bit stylised at times, she’s refreshingly different from many other sci-fi protagonists. Ted, of course, is her slightly nervous and naive sidekick.

All in all, this film is both better and worse than I remember. Yes, it can be a bit fast, intentionally confusing and superficial at times but – on the other hand – it also contains a lot more philosophical depth, symbolism and innovation than you might expect from a Hollywood sci-fi film. Plus, it’s very 1990s too – which is always a good thing 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half. It isn’t quite as good as “Blade Runner”, but it’s still a very innovative, unique and intelligent sci-fi film.

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