#30 — eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)
In November of the last year of the nineties, Entertainment Weekly published a cover story that proclaimed 1999 to be “The Year That Changed Movies.” It posited that the box office success of The Matrix and the cool kid cachet that came from proclaiming appreciation for films like Run Lola Run and The Fight Club was indicative of a sea change in the very nature of structure of narrative cinema. Like most such trend pieces, it’s built upon a faulty premise, inventing tenuous connections between markedly different works created by disparate, unconnected filmmakers and terming it a movement. Maybe the most problematic part of the article was a result of the mad rush to celebrate new filmmakers at the expense of those who’d been around for awhile, leading the author to ignore the 1999 release that could have served as the most compelling evidence new modes of storytelling could open up the possibilities of film in exciting, energizing way. So many words and yet no room for this one: eXistenZ.
David Cronenberg’s film was set in a near-future and centered on a new virtual reality video game created by an acknowledged master designer named Allegra Geller, played with a strain of sly enticement by Jennifer Jason Leigh. In Cronenberg’s vision, video games are something that a player literally plugs into, inserting a umbilical cord like connector into a bio port located on their torso. This takes the player into the game where the objective is to puzzle out the narrative involving assassination attempts, bizarre double-crosses and weapons fashioned from gristly organic material. Cronenberg perfectly integrates the trial-and-error nature of pushing through a video game’s narrative, hitting upon the weird little dead ends and redundant glitches that can crop up as well as the compulsory nature of certain actions. To get to the next stage in the predetermined narrative, there is usually only one route and it needs to be followed, even if it involves gnawing away at a plateful of disgusting food. This could just be a snarky satire of computer games, but Cronenberg sharply brings in a layer of commentary on the equally rigid nature of cinematic narrative. It’s hard not to see some self-satire in the visceral materials strewn freely across the screen or the scene in which the character’s engage in a sex scene, noting the obligatory nature of it as they grind through the motions.
The other fascinating aspect of Cronenberg’s film is its study of the pliability of identity, specifically the way that the true inner self can get completely lost the more roles a person takes on, an idea that’s only grown more pertinent in the years since the film’s release. The characters in the film move in and out of their shared fictional reality with such ease that discerning between the real and the false becomes nearly impossible, a problem that extends to understanding how their real personality and that of the avatars they take on do and don’t interrelate. A strong, sure sense of self is valued so highly, and yet it’s tragically fragile. It can be erased in a moment, a theoretically unthinkable act that’s usually perpetrated cavalierly in the name of frivolous role playing, the constant quest for escape to some better version of one’s self. Me 2.0. It’s a theme that Cronenberg had explored with regularity throughout his career, and the ingenuity he brought to it in eXistenZ proved his continuing vitality as a filmmaker. Even if certain publications didn’t notice.