David Cronenberg's 1999 film eXistenZ follows some very familiar themes from his career: technology run amok, the nature of reality, mad scientists, unreliable government, and oppressive corporations. These features can be found in Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Naked Lunch (1991), and of course eXistenZ. Two more film could be lumped in, as far as the reality aspect goes: The Dead Zone (1983) and Dead Ringers (1988). Naked Lunch even has two actors in common with eXistenZ, Ian Holm and Robert Silverman. Clearly Cronenberg has a fascination with these themes and a need to explore them.
eXistenZ recycles the most from two of Cronenberg's earlier films, Videodrome and Naked Lunch. The movie(s) could be best described as organic or techno horror. The very basic designs of characters and objects are intended to disturb the audience through their disgusting biological appearance. It also touches on paranoia, alienation, and mistrust of the "reality" that surrounds us.
eXistenZ joins the genre of virtual reality films released the same year, with The Thirteenth Floor and The Matrix, all 1999. They deal with the concept of reality and the computer-generated equivalents. Something was in the air in Hollywood at this time, although they were a bit late to the virtual reality craze of the mid 90s. It is interesting how all three handle the VR premise very differently.
In the plot of eXistenZ, the newest edition of a game system is introduced by Antenna Research to a panel of testers. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the star game designer Allegra Geller, who designs the new virtual reality game eXistenZ.
Jude Law plays Ted Pikul, a marketing trainee put in charge of security at the front door for the event. (What is Jude Law going to do, flirt you to death?) As the demonstration begins, an assassin from the crowd produces a bizarre, organic gun and attempts to assassinate Allegra. The man shouts "Death to the demoness Allegra Geller!" He is apparently a member of a Realist movement that is against the encroaching mass-produced, fake realities on the market. When the shooting starts, Ted gets startled and barely lifts a finger. It takes two undercover armed security people to kill the assassin. Another employee of Antenna is killed, and his last words to Ted are "we have enemies in our own house. Trust no one." This could be a reference to Matthew 10:36: A man's enemies will be the members of his own household.
The game systems, called "metaflesh gamepods," are actually organic creatures (rather than electronic consoles) that resemble indistinct lumps of tissue, produced at Antenna by injecting synthetic DNA into amphibian eggs. The gamepods squirm and make noise when touched. Allegra even refers to a gamepod as "her." The player-user has to insert an umbilical cord from the console into a bio-port in the small of their back, which provides direct access to the person's spine. Once in the game, the people fall into a trance-like state.
The Realist Underground has put a hit out on Allegra, so she and Ted must evade the assassins and their acquaintances who may have been paid off to sabotage her. The organic technology used for the gamepods and guns is evidently widespread, because Ted owns something called a "pink phone," which resembles of a lump of lard.
In this near-future, the virtual reality games have apparently overtaken real life activities. A character comments that "it seems like everything is used for something else now." The sweatshop slaughterhouse where the mutated amphibians are harvested was previously a trout farm. Allegra and Ted hide out in an old ski lodge, because as Allegra says, "no one physically skis anymore." The building where the eXistenZ demonstration takes place is a disused church. Has even religion gone by the wayside in this world?
Allegra is described as being shy but is more of the man in the relationship. She tells Ted she will handle things, and orders him to remove the "bullet" (actually a human tooth) from her shoulder with a pocket knife. Ted is reluctant to have a bio-port installed. "I have this phobia about having my body penetrated... surgically. You know what I mean." Allegra replies "no I'm not sure that I do." Note the hint of gender distinction. Ted rashly tries to fend off having a bio-port put in by wielding a giant wrench. Allegra says of Ted's fear, "This is it, you see. This is the cage of your own making, which keeps you trapped and pacing about in the smallest possible space forever." Later, Allegra (lustfully perhaps) licks her finger and inserts into Ted's bio-port, saying that it "wants some action," and Ted gets angry and swats her away.
The film environment may be a semi-fascist state. Bio-ports have to be licensed and ones installed unofficially are illegal. Rural areas are a haven for black markets and trading secret information. This is where game development people hide out. Allegra is a "big star" in this world. When Ted and Allegra stop at a country gas station to get a bio-port, the character Gas (Willem Dafoe) figures out who Allegra is and falls on his knees and kisses her feet. He explains that her games have been a liberating force for him, allowing him to escape his mundane life as a gas station owner and explore his other abilities. And yet, Allegra spends all her time alone in her room designing games. For example, eXistenZ the game took five years and cost $38 million to develop, "not including pre-release marketing costs."
Using the eXistenZ game inspires the characters to a better appreciation for actual reality. Allegra curiously touches the cement on the gas station building, smells the gas pump, and kicks the dirt. She throws a rock at the pump and smiles at the tin noise.
Then again, is it "actual reality"? The nature of reality is toyed with, manipulated, twisted, and hinted at throughout the movie. It is one of those movies that makes more sense when viewed a second time. As Ted and Allegra (her name means "happy" in Italian) are on the run, everything is a little too scenic and contrived.
In the real world of the film, the characters have technology that we (in our world) do not, nor could we conceive of ever making. The organic gun shoots human teeth as bullets, and the cell phone is made of... I don't want to know. Allegra also encounters a strange creature at the gas station: a two-headed lizard that walks like a scorpion. She explains that it is a "sign of the times." So, how real is the "real" world of the film?
The relationship between movies and video games is explored. Both films and games try to recreate reality on their own terms, in a more interesting version, a hyper reality. In games, we marvel at their graphics and sound effects and physics, but what will happen when technology gets so good that it can recreate the real world so well that it's indistinguishable? Will we be impressed by the achievement of the recreation, or be bored with it because that world already exists right outside our doors anyway? If the simulation is too real, how can we tell it apart from reality? Or, once we achieve that state, will it matter?
The similarities between eXistenZ and Videodrome and Naked Lunch abound. Andy Warhol called Videodrome the "Clockwork Orange of the 80s." That film mainly focuses on the nature of media and entertainment warping our perceptions. It adds to alienation and paranoia over what is real. It also involves a corrupt corporation. A pirated TV signal called Videodrome (supposedly from Asia but actually Pittsburgh) is broadcast depicting snuff films. The real producer of Videodrome is Spectacular Optical Corporation, a front for a weapons company. The broadcasts are designed to kill depraved viewers by giving them brain tumors. Max Renn (James Woods) develops reality-warping mental abilities, and one of his hands is transformed into an organic gun. It's quite literally a hand-gun. Throughout the film he yells "Death to Videodrome, long live the New Flesh!" similar to the assassin's exclamation in eXistenZ.
In Naked Lunch, reality is warped by a powerful drug that is manufactured as bug powder. The main character, William Lee (Peter Weller), uncovers a bizarre conspiracy through his drug use. His typewriter transforms into a sentient, speaking insect of some sort. The insect orders Lee, now a secret agent, to assassinate people who work for Interzone Incorporated (again, notice the evil corporation). In the film, the insects make animal noises and squirm around, just like the metaflesh gamepods.
The gamepods seem to be completely organic, and the data is stored on "neural webbing," but when a gamepod is fried it lights up and shoots sparks. Ian Holm dissects a gamepod much like he dissected the facehugger in Alien exactly 20 years earlier.
The eXistenZ game world is not revealed until 40 minutes into the film. Allegra describes the transition to the game world in movie editing terms, such as "jagged brutal cuts" and "slow fades." During the game experience, Ted gets worried. "Where are our real bodies? Are they alright? What if they're hungry? What if they're in danger?" This presciently describes real internet and video game addiction. The phenomenon of MMORPGs causing real psychosis and even death from exhaustion and dehydration has occurred in South Korea and Japan.
"What is the goal?" Ted asks Allegra. "You have to play the game, to find out why you're playing the game," she replies. It sounds like life. You don't always know where you're going until you get there. At the very end of the film, when a character gets a gun turned on him, he asks "tell me the truth, are we still in the game?" The characters don't know and neither do we.