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Pod Man Out

[whitespace] eXistenZ
Beta Breakers: Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a game designer whose latest creation takes on a life of its own.

A virtual-reality game turns reality inside out in David Cronenberg's 'eXistenZ'

By Richard von Busack

IN COMPARISON to The Matrix's much-trumpeted visual wonders, the small, subversive, sexy eXistenZ by David Cronenberg is better in every way, except in the meager realm of special effects. Cronenberg is the most important horror film director of the past 30 years. Yet his new film is sneaking into theaters without the advance word it deserves.

The Matrix offers supermarket philosophy about artificial-intelligence computers that have projected a false reality that deludes all of humankind. The Matrix's story represents the sort of vulgarization that the Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki had in mind when he wrote that the religion wasn't just candy to tickle beatniks. Cronenberg's subtler jiggering of reality provides a deeper and more playful experience. The director throws out a basketful of banana peels under the feet of the viewer who follows the game within the film.

It's even more fun that Cronenberg eschews the clichés of the futurist movie: the dark cities, the overcast skies, the suit-wearing evildoers on the tops of office towers. The film takes place in the Canadian woods. It's a visual analogy, as if eXistenZ had been made in Bill Gates' neighborhood.

In the near future, a virginal security guard named Ted (Jude Law) and the world's greatest virtual-reality game designer, the famous Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), are fleeing religious fanatics. Her skill has made her more a spiritual leader than a toymaker. The beta-testers gathered for her newest game, eXistenZ, are like New Age disciples. The equipment for the games is more alarming than the game itself.

Geller and her team engineer her games from biotech. The game pods are living, haggislike bags constructed from the guts of mutant Technicolored frogs. ("We're nothing but glorified veterinarians," grouses Ian Holm, in a small part as a technician performing surgery on one of the gross pods.)

These "master units" have a strand of tripe that plugs into a "port," a second anus drilled at the base of the user's spine. The ports are installed under circumstances that resemble a very unpleasant spinal tap. (Willem Dafoe does the installation, in one of Cronenberg's most hideo-comic scenes ever.) But the damn things work--unless they get diseased, in which case you have to plug into them, enter the program and find out what's bothering the organism.

THE MOOD isn't one of dread, but of sport, of gamesmanship. Although it will take you an hour to get your hackles down after you see eXistenZ, the movie is consistently funny. The usually sullen Leigh gives an unusually playful performance. It's been some time since Leigh had a fun role. She's lickerish here, persuading Ted, the unported virgin, into having a new one drilled: "Once you're ported, there's no end to the games you can play." These scenes put the sexual perversity back into the future.

But then, eXistenZ is the first futuristic movie in years that's escaped the retrofuture. "Most people who come to a sci-fi movie about game playing will have certain expectations," Cronenberg says during a visit to the Bay Area. "I want to derail those expectations, because if you're on those rails, you're going to come out at the station in the same old place. Blade Runner was disturbing the first time, but now it's kind of comfortable; it feels cozy. So I don't want the audience to get too comfortable. Not only do I not have the Blade Runner city, I have no city, and there are no computers, no television screens, no running shoes, no mirrors, clocks, watches, jewelry. I'm trying to dislocate the audience so they don't know where they are, and they have to give themselves up to the movie. That's why the movie looks like an alternative now instead of another future."

Cronenberg played a mad scientist once, in the film Nightbreed. He has the politeness, the professorial diction, the prominent brow, the two piercing eyes. His healthy scientific interest in the pathological has informed his movies: a war of telepaths in Scanners, and two pictures that anticipated the ruin STDs would cause in our time (They Came From Within and Rabid). His greatest work is a remake of The Fly as a detailed metaphor for the experience of cancer.

The germ of eXistenZ was, Cronenberg says, an interview he did with the author Salman Rushdie for the Canadian magazine Shift. Rushdie was in hiding, in peril of his life because of the Fatwah--a religious death sentence placed on him by Muslim fundamentalists as punishment for The Satanic Verses. Rushdie spoke to Cronenberg in London, with Scotland Yard detectives standing guard. After seeing Rushdie, Cronenberg began to muse over the idea of a film about a Fatwah against a virtual-reality game designer.

Still, Cronenberg isn't addicted to computer games. "I've played Mech Warrior 2 and Myst, and a Japanese game called Gadget," he says. "[It's] a beautiful game which my agent sent me, since they were thinking of making a film from it." And yet he's skeptical about the cinematic possibilities of computer games.

"Certainly a lot of games look toward Hollywood," he says. "Unfortunately, it's only Hollywood they look to. There are some other film sources they could look to which would be more interesting. Cinema is really a mature art form, and so its revolutions are more subtle and deeper, more intellectual and cerebral."

He pauses, then adds, "There's no equivalent in the movies of the increased chip speed and processing power that can give you better graphics. In games, the technological breakthroughs are what's promoted. It's never really a breakthrough of imagination or awareness. And that's why I don't consider games art. The potential is there. And there's the interesting question of whether something that collaborative can be art. The old, relatively romantic view of the artist is that the artist has a vision which somehow seduces, enraptures and takes you away to some other place."

And if you believe in that romantic vision, you'll never be at home making a studio movie. Cronenberg had actually written eXistenZ for MGM, since his agent had become the head of the studio. Inevitably, the film was rejected for violation of the story arc. Since the film is about a game, the characters change personalities.

"It wasn't considered linear enough," Cronenberg explains. "The structure of a Hollywood film goes deep--in approach to character," Cronenberg says. "I don't want to go on a Hollywood rant, but the Hollywood version of filmmaking is totally dominant right now. When I'm feeling negative, I think of the possibility that someday there may be only one kind of movie you can see, and that would be a Hollywood movie."

"Now, I haven't seen The Matrix," Cronenberg continues. "I understand that there was some technology that was used that was proposed to me for eXistenZ. It's used in a well-known Gap ad; that's why I rejected it." The technology Cronenberg is mentioning freezes characters in three dimensions, continuing the camera motion around; the commercial in question, for khaki pants, had a group of dancers freeze-framed to the music of Louis Prima.

"First of all, that sort of freezing of time and space is not part of what I was doing in this movie," Cronenberg says. "And I still remember that Stanley Kubrick discovered the zoom lens, and then in The Shining he kind of discovered the Steadicam. They both looked so old immediately. These cameras are all tools to be used when it's appropriate. Just because the technology is there doesn't mean it needs to be used every time."

WHILE LISTENING to Cronenberg talk about eXistenZ, it becomes clear that he's more interested in his new film's philosophy than in its technology. "The title eXistenZ is a reference to the existentialist's accepting total responsibility for his actions," Cronenberg explains.

"When Sartre says, 'Man is condemned to be free,' the statement means 'condemned' because it's scary to be free, and the responsibility is yours. 'Free' because if you see clearly into the depths of your own being, you are free."

All reality, Cronenberg argues, "is virtual. It expresses a creative act of will among humans. We are masters of the universe, as it turns out. The guys from outer space are never going to bail us out. I don't believe in that Victorian ideal of progress that we're going to evolve into angelic creatures, but we have seized control of our own evolution.

"We could change ourselves into another species. In fact, I think we have been. We've been absorbing our own technology to the point where the biochemistry of our own bodies has changed. ... I'm not just talking about pollution. There's a point where we ingest our technology into our own bodies, and that's what Allegra's pods were metaphors for."

Where a film like The Matrix hypothesizes using computers to fight computers, eXistenZ opens up more uneasy questions of will in the light of what Cronenberg calls "the one indisputable fact." Reality may be real, virtual or otherwise, but our bodies aren't. When they mutate, are poisoned, are possessed--when they flower with disease or are taken by a parasite as in Cronenberg's dark fantasies--we become something different. As Hamlet's Ophelia says, "Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be."

eXistenZ (R; 90 min.), written and directed by David Cronenberg, photographed by Peter Suschitzky and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law.

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From the April 22-28, 1999 issue of Metro.

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