eXistenZ (1999)

In 1999, cinema put out two films that questioned the nature of reality. The Matrix was the most popular and influential, although some decried it from being strikingly similar to Dark City, which came out the year before and explored similar issues. The other film, the one that gets little mention, is David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ.

Where Cronenberg’s effort differs from Dark City and The Matrix is that it implicates the characters in the film in their acceptance—nay, their preference—to be part of an alternate reality. Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the creator of a system known as eXistenZ, a cutting edge, real as life, game that is a hit sensation. But it’s not without its haters. After an attempt on her life, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a PR intern who was mistaken as a security guard, is forced to protect Allegra from her enemies.

Even while fleeing for her life, Allegra is desperate to be hooked back into the system. To call her attachment to the game an addiction is an understatement. She wants to live this way and she’s eager to bring Ted into this world as well, insisting that she needs him in order to play the game properly. And yet, it seems like an arbitrary conceit for the narrative.

This is where Croneneberg shows his brilliance at understanding media. One of the core elements of any game is that the rule system is arbitrary, hence, the film is also built around such arbitrary logic and rule setting in order to reflect a society’s obsession with the game system. In fact, it seems as if Allegra prefers such arbitrary logic to the persistent and predictable rationale of earthly reality.

The film explores the nature of reality and perception in a much more meaningful way than either The Matrix or Dark City achieved. Here, it takes the implications of an alternate reality to their logical conclusion: once in a false reality is that close to our own reality, a crisis of perception and a questioning of realty occurs. Those seeking to end Allegra’s life see it as a crime against humanity.

Croneneberg also explores the notion that such a system would be pleasurable. Not only is it much more entertaining and intriguing than the mundane nature of everyday live, but there’s also something more base about the passion it can arouse. Cronenberg makes entrance into the game world a literal penetration and more than once the act is synonymous to sex.

However, for those game savvy individuals, eXistenZ will come across as a poor understanding of video games as a medium. Put simply, the logic of the game is terrible. At times, the system seems to be working against itself. At first, one might simply chalk it up to Cronenberg not actually understanding video games, but the brilliance is that he does and uses it to make a film that is trying to destroy video games.

For some, this bizarre tale is far-fetched fantasy. Games certainly have a ways to go to be this immersive, but the pleasure and addiction is already here. Look no further than the millions of people playing World of Warcraft or the packs of men playing Call of Duty. The world of eXistenZ is slowly approaching already, it’s a cautionary tale that’s effectiveness will be for history to tell.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing