Play it. Live it. Kill for it.
In 1999, there were two “dead people” movies, The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes. The Sixth Sense met with critical acclaim and $294 million at the box office. Stir of Echoes, which in many ways I actually liked better, made a paltry $23 million. That same year, there were two virtual world/real world movies. One of them made $171 million and electrified audiences. The other made $3 million. The popular one, of course, was The Matrix. Kick ass, very cool movie. The other was eXistenZ.
Okay, so this is the second time we have reviewed eXistenZ, but…well, frankly, the other reviewer didn’t care for the movie much, and I really wanted a chance to sell this movie up to you. Besides, this is a different disc — this is the Canadian DVD release. Ah, those wacky Canadians. Not only did they make this movie in the first place, they’ve one-upped the American DVD release. Death to the demoness Allegra Geller!
Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a celebrity game designer. She creates virtual reality worlds that are joined using biopods, which are biomechanical game devices that connect via an umbilical cord to a bioport in the user’s spine. Creepy. Her newest game is eXistenZ, and she is about to show it off to a test audience. Her demonstration is interrupted by an assassin, who (the blitheringly obvious in 3…2…1) wants her dead. Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a marketing intern, whisks her away when she goes on the run.
Let’s see, that plot summary covers about the first five or ten minutes of the movie, and does nothing to illuminate what is just so great about eXistenZ. But before I get into that, I have to step back for a moment, because to grasp the milieu of eXistenZ, a familiarity with a certain breed of computer game is necessary: the adventure game. Back in the early days of home computing, before fancy graphics were even possible, when Tron was the vision of the future for nerds and geeks everywhere, there were text-based adventure games. Using your memory and your imagination, you would navigate through dungeons or other exotic locales, collecting items, locating traps, talking with the denizens of the world…again, only with text. Those early games, like Zork (“You are standing in an open field west of a white house…”), are still the stuff of legend. Later on, the adventure game format would move into the graphical era. My favorite was The Secret of Monkey Island, where you played a young chap who wanted to be a pirate. Using dialogue trees, you’d converse with the swashbucklers, hermits, and vegetarian cannibals of the game’s Caribbean setting. You’d collect unusual items — magnetic business cards, wax lips, stylish confetti, banana pickers — and they’d always end up serving a useful purpose. Using a virtual reality interface, that’s the kind of game eXistenZ is. It puts the player inside the game as a character, but they still have a limited range of actions and dialogue as provided by the constraints of the game. The game won’t progress until the player says the right dialogue to the right person, and their activities are guided in an unnervingly strict way. Frankly, I’d hate to play this game, because it seems too linear and isn’t open to exploration.
I’m reluctant to discuss the plot of eXistenZ in much detail. Its allure is the way in which the story unfolds. Allegra and Ted are on the run due to the circumstances I already detailed, but that’s just the beginning. She is protective of her game, which represents years of hard work. Part of the story deals with the eXistenZ game itself. It’s the movie’s high point when Allegra and Ted finally enter its virtual reality world and proceed to explore it. Its world is subtly different, and they seem to be caught in the middle of a vast conspiracy that they cannot understand. It’s the characters lack of foreknowledge of the nature of the world — and that we are allowed to discover it with them — that adds to its uniqueness.
Whereas other virtual reality movies rely heavily on special effects, eXistenZ is very nearly absent of obvious effects. In fact, it wasn’t until I listened to David Cronenberg’s commentary track that I even realized that some of the scenes had CG enhancement. The movie’s sole obvious effect — an odd mutated bug/lizard-like creature — I attributed to animatronics, but apparently it was mostly CG. There’s no morphing, no wacky shifts between the “real world” and eXistenZ; instead, the transitions are seamless and natural. See, you can make a sci-fi movie that focuses on plot and character, and not on bells and whistles.
For astute game players, you will notice that stylistically the game world of eXistenZ has many things in common with those early adventure games. Cronenberg ensured that the world would seem as much like an “old-fashioned” computer game as possible. Characters are simply detailed; notice that no one wears jewelry and that their clothes have minimal details, befitting a game with primitive graphics. Notice that very nearly everything in the world is labeled, even the “non-player characters,” and that the labels give basic descriptions: “Country Gas Station,” “Chinese Restaurant,” et cetera. For an old-school gamer like myself, it all feels right at home.
David Cronenberg assembled an amazing cast, perhaps not A-list stars, but still with considerable wattage for a production with a budget of $31 million Canadian dollars. Headlining are Jennifer Jason Leigh as Allegra and Jude Law as Ted. Jennifer Jason Leigh is not one of my favorite actresses, partially because she’s been in few movies I’ve really wanted to see, but mostly because I had to review Georgia, a movie that was depressing in every conceivable way and some that I had never even considered. However, I absolutely loved her in the Coen Brothers flick The Hudsucker Proxy, and I certainly won’t deny that she is a very talented actress. As Allegra, Leigh embodies everything you can picture in the prototypical computer game designer: arrogance, social ineptness, passion for their work, fierce protectiveness of their creations. It’s not a performance that makes me a fan, but it’s convincing and entertaining. I haven’t seen many of Jude Law’s performances either; I keep meaning to rent Gattaca but I never do. His amazing turn as Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley was enough to make me an admirer of his work. Ted seems to be the actual focus of the movie, as he has the most character growth. If eXistenZ can be compared to The Matrix because of the virtual reality connection, then Ted Pikul is the Neo of this movie. He has no previous experience with the sort of computer games Allegra designs, so his encounters in eXistenZ are all fresh and new, and Law convinces us that he is experiencing everything for the first time without resorting to a perpetual puzzled expression and grunted “whoa”s. The supporting actors are like a Who’s Who list of actors from independent films or the ranks of the Hollywood character actors. Without dwelling on their unique performances, there’s Ian Holm (Alien), Willem Dafoe (Shadow of the Vampire), Don McKellar (The Red Violin), Christopher Eccleston (Elizabeth), Sarah Polley (Go), and Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman (Scanners, Naked Lunch).
If I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, it’s because I’m too keenly aware of the holes in my film viewing: eXistenZ is the only David Cronenberg movie I’ve ever seen. I can’t comment on how this film fits in his oeuvre, but I can say this — he’s one twisted bastard, and I mean that in the best possible sense. The worlds of eXistenZ, both the “game world” and the “real world,” are skewed doppelgangers of our own. The technology, usually the cornerstone of sci-fi, is biomechanical rather than metallic. The “biopods” that contain the virtual worlds are strange, bulbous, slimy contraptions that connect to the user via a fleshy umbilical cord. It’s like the fantasies of H.R. Giger that Ridley Scott never dared touch in Alien. (Hey kids, like the Alien movies? Then go to your local bookstore or library and browse through a book of H.R. Giger’s artwork. It is guaranteed to blow your mind.) There’s a gun made of biological material that…well, I won’t spoil it much further than that. It’s crazy stuff. I can sense a Cronenberg movie marathon in my future, starting with The Fly and…oh, bummer. I have to wait until August for Scanners. It sounds intriguing. Maybe I’ll watch Crash too…I always get a kick out of James Spader.
The US DVD release of eXistenZ was one of the rare early anamorphic releases from Buena Vista. The Canadian release appears to have the same 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. Other than some rare speckles or edge enhancement, it is a top-notch transfer. The Canadian version also has the same effective Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. For much of the film, it’s a subtle track, but when required, it roars to life in a very aggressive manner. In other words, it’s much like the film itself. Kudos for the excellent track.
Okay, so if that’s all there were to this disc, then there wouldn’t be a point in differentiating it from the American release. Oh, but there’s so much more! Buena Vista may have nailed the technical specs with the American release, but where Alliance one-upped them with the Canadian version is with the extras. All the American release got was a theatrical trailer, but the Canadian one gets that trailer, plus a documentary, plus three…yes, THREE commentary tracks, and they’re easily what make this disc worth tracking down. There is a track each for writer/director David Cronenberg, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, and special effects guru Jim Isaac. Time only permitted me to listen to the Cronenberg track prior to writing this review, but it’s worth the price of the disc itself. He discusses virtually every detail of the film’s making, from the actors to the effects to the philosophy behind the story. It’s not the most entertaining commentary ever, but it’s one of the most enlightening, quite easily the better of my previous two picks for most enlightening commentary (Alexander Payne’s track on Election and Steven Soderbergh and Neil LaBute on sex lies and videotape). The documentary is entitled “The Invisible Art of Carol Spier,” and is a nearly hour-long look at the work of production designer Carol Spier. She’s worked with Cronenberg on seven feature films, first with The Fly in 1986. The documentary features interview footage with Cronenberg and Spier, and details virtually the entire pre-production and production of eXistenZ. Like the three commentary tracks, it’s definitely above and beyond what you would expect on a single-disc DVD.
What? After all of that do you think I’d really have anything negative to say? Get out of my courtroom with your rebuttals!
If you’re a fan of David Cronenberg, if you love eXistenZ, or even if you’re just someone who likes out of the ordinary science fiction, you owe it to yourself to track down this Canadian DVD release. The extra features make it a must-have. I ordered mine from North American DVD. I was very pleased with their service, and even with shipping it cost less than buying the American version off the shelf at a brick-and-mortar retailer. There are other Canadian DVD retailers from whom you can purchase this; I’d recommend a search at Yahoo, or you can probably find it at eBay.