For all its awe-inspiring gee-wizardry, the common perception of virtual reality remains as that of a rather cold, technical concept. As seen in reality and as depicted in the movies, VR enables one to do things one would never otherwise be able to, but it pretty much boils down to doing next to nothing: just lying still, with cumbersome gear strapped onto the eyes and different places on the body.
Leave it to writer-director David Cronenberg to turn conventional perception on its ear. His latest film, eXistenZ, is indeed part of the recent crop of VR-themed thrillers, but Cronenberg's take on the concept is truly unlike anything ever seen. eXistenZ takes its name from a virtual reality system created by Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a world-famous game designer. The virtual world explored in eXistenZ--and, in turn, eXistenZ--is nothing particularly new or visually spectacular: more or less, it's a duplication of the actual world, except with seamless, if abrupt, shifts in time and place. Neither is Cronenberg's plot terribly ambitious. Fundamentally, the story simply has Allegra and her makeshift bodyguard Ted Pikul (Jude Law, sporting a flawless Canadian accent) on the run from assassins who want to see "the demoness Allegra" dead. Eventually, the two retreat into eXistenZ, a world that may actually be more "real" than the one they live in.
Cronenberg's main concern, however, is not so much in the intentionally video-game-thin story, but in the finer details, most notably in the nature of the eXistenZ system itself. There is no heavy headgear, gloves, wires, or the like; in their place is a soft, kidney-shaped GamePod, connected to an UmbyCord, which is exactly as it sounds: long, thick, and fleshy. It would be tempting to call the eXistenZ system "biomechanical," but there's nothing "mechanical" or electronic about it; the GamePod appears to be a natural living organism in itself, undulating and gurgling as if it had a mind of its own. Further blurring the line between nature and technology is the GamePod's power source: the human nervous system. The UmbyCord is plugged into a BioPort, which is a hole drilled into a player's lower back, tapping directly into the spinal column.
Making the human body part of the equipment not only adds a certain creepiness, but also a dimension of perverse eroticism. Before being inserted, both the tip of the UmbyCord and the BioPort must be moistened, and when the BioPort is penetrated by the UmbyCord--or anything else, for that matter--it gets visibly stimulated. Mere connection does not mean entrance into eXistenZ; one must also stroke the moist, nipple-like knobs on the GamePod. This sensual caressing of the GamePod goes on as one is in the game.
The blatantly sexual overtones are just one bizarre detail of Cronenberg's fascinating, if unsettling, vision. There is a great deal of gore in eXistenZ, most of all in Allegra and Ted's game, where mutant amphibians figure prominently--or, rather, their remains. Their dead bodies are gruesomely mined for their innards, which are used to build GamePods in a slaughterhouse called a Trout Farm; they also turn up on the unappetizing menu of a Chinese restaurant. The slimy stickiness could easily be pegged as cheap sensationalism, but it plays an integral and sometimes surprising part in Cronenberg's larger picture.
Playing a weaker part in that larger picture is the story, which, while superficially engaging, never adds up to much. I won't give away its conclusion, which was met with some boos at my audience, but it essentially reveals eXistenZ as one big tease--which, I believe, is the point. What matters to Cronenberg is the imaginative trip on which his film takes its audience and the eerie feeling of unease it leaves them at the end. In that sense, eXistenZ, like its namesake, is one big game, but it is definitely one worth playing--or, rather, one to be p
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