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The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Five: eXistenZ (1999)

“Only on the most pathetic level of reality”. So says Gas, the character played by Willem Dafoe in Cronenberg’s final film of the 1990’s(and his body-horror swan song?), “eXistenZ”. Consumed with the theme for three decades, David would almost completely abandon it from his “bag of tricks” in all of his new millenium work, so far. Oh, you may catch a flash of the old “Dave Deprave” in, let’s say, “A History of Violence”…but it’s just not the same. It’s as if he shot his bolt in “eXistenZ”, and never felt the need to return. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen “eXistenZ” at this point, but it never fails to enthrall me and it always makes me laugh. And I’ll take it over the similarly themed “The Matrix” any day(they were released within a month of each other, so claims of artistic theft are ridiculous). In fact, it was dubbed “the thinking man’s Matrix” upon its release in 1999—and I guess that’s true enough. Squeamish? Then you can skip this, and most of Cronenberg’s 1990’s offerings, and move right on to the next decade. But you’ll be missing a treat. Plus, it’s funny! Especially for the initiated. Want more? The whole idea stems from a conversation Cronenberg had with Salman Rushdie during the period when the author was infamously on-the-run and hiding from assassination threatened by religious zealots. Knowing that beforehand provides your A-HA! moment when following the plight of Allegra Gellar(the beautiful, brilliant, sickeningly and consistently ignored by Oscar, Jennifer Jason Leigh). It should be almost immediately apparent following Allegra’s introduction. After that it’s anyone’s guess what’s real and what’s “the game”, wrapping up with a circling back in on itself finale that is mystifying and satisfying. Need further help after seeing it for the first time? There are, at least, two published works associated with this film and I own and have read both. One is a novelization by Christopher Priest, who reportedly ties it in to some of his own sci-fi writing. The other is a “graphic novel” comic book that looks great and allows you to flip back and forth between pages to help you pinpoint where you may have gotten lost. Not that I find it all that confusing, but I remember discussions with some folks that were. It stands up to, and greatly rewards, the repeat viewings.

Allegra Gellar is a genius video game designer who appears before a focus group to test her new offering. It’s the not-too-distant future, and virtual reality is becoming the norm, with Allegra being hailed as the best-of-the-best among game designers. Game pods, as they are called, are now organic looking consoles with umbilical cord-like hookups that “port” directly into your spine. Getting a “bio-port” installed in your back is quickly becoming as routine as having your ears pierced at the local mall. Just as the testing of Allegra’s latest creation begins, an interloper sneaks through security and attempts to assassinate her. She is wounded in the shoulder and escapes, amidst a barrage of bullets, with security guard and marketing trainee Ted Pikul(Jude Law). On-the-run now, and forced into hiding from the militants who object to her continued “distortion of reality”, Allegra’s first concern is if her game has been damaged during the fracas(still in the test phase, it is the only existing copy). She needs to check it with help from a game partner, but Pikul doesn’t have a bio-port(made to sound as ridiculous as not owning a cell phone today). They stop in the middle-of-the-night at a simple gas station to get one installed in the reluctant Pikul. The proprietor(Mr. Dafoe), at first, drops to his knees in awe of being in the presence of Allegra. But then after installing Ted’s bio-port, quickly sells her out at gunpoint with the intent of turning her in to her enemies. Pikul manages to shoot Gas, however, and eventually heads to a cabin with Allegra to try-out the game after some assistance from Allegra’s trusted friend and mentor, Kiri Vinokur(Ian Holm). But can Allegra trust Vinokur? Can she even trust Pikul? And what are these troubling parallels to “reality” when Ted and Allegra finally enter the world of the game?

At some point I would like to write about the roots of my obsession with Jennifer Jason Leigh, but I’ll leave that for another time. Let me simply state that I find her to be not only bewitching, but also among a handful of the finest actresses gracing the big screen in modern-day. Oh, the gnawing disappointment of her having to drop out of Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” due to a reportedly “eXistenZ”-related scheduling conflict(what Stanley might have been able to pull from her!). She’s an awesome, and utterly convincing, presence as the celebrated game goddess. Her chemistry with Jude Law as Pikul is palpable at a time when he was rapidly becoming an ubiquitous film presence. And special attention must be given to the marvelous work of the visual/special effects crew. Guns made out of bone that shoot human teeth(“I suppose a smaller-caliber pistol would have to fire baby teeth”, opines Allegra). Pods that light up and vibrate while evoking sensuality and revulsion in their similarity to body parts and sexual organs. Two-headed mutant reptiles—and the most disgusting “fish stew”(the special!)ever filmed, being chomped down by a horrified Pikul as he discovers the hidden treasure beneath the slime and viscera. Howard Shore’s score is creepy and effective and dead-on as usual. And the movie boasts an amazing cast of of character actors including those already noted, as well as Don McKellar, a twenty-ish Sarah Polley and old friend Robert A. Silverman. “eXistenZ” plays like a 1970’s-style “midnight movie”, and it would be wonderful to watch it that way in an old, local small town theater(its 97 minute run time is roughly the same as witching hour champ, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, after all!). This was David’s first original script since 1982’s “Videodrome”, after a decade-and-a-half of adaptations, and if the seams show sometimes—it was still an obvious labor-of-love. And often hilariously tongue-in-cheek. I can’t quite put it among Cronenberg’s elite works, and it is perhaps a shade or two lesser than the films of his that I’ve covered so far. But it’s an awful lot of fun for us devotees…and those with strong enough stomachs.

Grade:  A-(or maybe just one tic above a B+)

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