'eXistenZ' a dark sci-fi study in the melding of man and technology
Abandon the deep-seeded sexual-social metaphors and water down the ick factor, and David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ" could be a Sci-Fi Channel movie.
Something of a cautionary tale about the future of virtual reality, featuring seamless multiple-layer story-within-story scenarios, Cronenberg's foundation here is the kind of what-is-reality? plot line that has also been the basis of dozens of "Outer Limits" episodes and several recent feature films ("Dark City," "The Matrix").
But because "eXistenZ" has been born of the mind of North America's most intelligent, off-the-wall auteur, there's so much more going on here, including themes of terrorism, experimental sexuality and humanity merging with technology (and vice versa).
The film takes place in a near and still familiar future, in which organic technology has supplanted the cold, impersonal computers of today. Most everyone has been surgically fitted with new orifices in the smalls of their backs to directly interface the central nervous system (through fleshy, veiny umbilical cords) with the mind-invading games which have become a common part of everyday life.
Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Allegra Gellar the designer of a revolutionary game run on bio-engineered "metaflesh" pods, in which the participants help form the program. The game writes itself through the minds of the players.
Opening at a secret, high-security test-marketing event for the new game called "eXistenZ," Cronenberg slides between reality and virtual reality with such seamless morphing that it is sometimes intentionally unclear what world the characters are in.
When the event is violently attacked by reality-espousing extremists, Allegra -- a cult figure in gaming circles and the target of the attack -- goes on the run with Ted Pikul (Jude Law), an apprehensive security wonk assigned to protect her.
Under the assumption that there must have been a turncoat in the testing group, and with her game pod (an incognizant lump of living tissue) injured in the assault and dying, Allegra persuades a reluctant "virgin" Ted to get retrofitted with a bioport so he can plug in to the game and help her search the remnants of the other players input, hoping to discover who set her up to be killed.
In the game, Allegra and Ted are cast as reality terrorists themselves, and are lead through a surreal and ever-changing approximation of the secretive and gruesome industry that creates the "metapods." They seek out their answers in an unsanitary hatchery where the pods are grown from mutated amphibians, and back in the real world (or is it?) they drop in on a fellow gamer (Ian Holm) who tries to save Allegra's pod in a graphic surgery (barf bag, please).
"eXistenZ" is quintessential Cronenberg. His fixation with body mutilation (the bioports, biological guns made from half-decayed body parts) and sexuality (the "UmbyCords" slishing into the bioports) are the kind of inherently disturbing concepts and images that mainstream moviegoers often can't handle unless presented as camp, like in a horror movie.
But Cronenberg, of course, has so much more in mind than just creeping people out. He immerses us in his eccentric, innovative (and, yes, sometimes gruesome) vision, assuming his audience is intelligent enough to understand it. Stylistically and intellectually "eXistenZ" is the opposite of the similarly-themed -- but ultimately dumbed down -- "Matrix." Although early on the picture gives off the air of corny science fiction, the director's envelope-pushing, high IQ concepts distance this film from its comic book anchoring.
Anchoring the film in another way is Leigh's evasively powerful performance as Allegra, the designer who has spent so much time in her own games that she has developed an unnatural detachment from her emotions.
The sci-fi silliness is always just one misstep away, so I spent whole sections of the movie worrying that it was going to turn dumb on me at any moment. But with a final, surprise torque on the twisting story, "eXistenZ" justifies itself with a powerful payoff that makes some (although not much) sense of everything that came before it.