eXistenZ (1999): David Cronenberg
Released one month after possibly the best virtual-reality action film in history (The Matrix), David Cronenberg gave us a trimmed down, world-within-a-world semi-action thriller called eXistenZ.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A game designer targeted for murder flees alongside her colleague and is forced to play her game to determine who’s after her…or is it?
eXistenZ confuses its watchers from the beginning. What is “eXistenZ”, and why does it have capital letters in strange places? The first question is answered immediately. It’s a game. The second one is never answered.
Christopher Eccleston might be the first person to appear on screen, but he is not the hero. He introduces her. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Cole, the world’s greatest game maker.
At first we think Allegra is a skate enthusiast, until she pulls from her roller blade case a pink, translucent game controller that resembles a sagging skin sack more than an advanced computer system.
Allegra is present inside a small church to play her new virtual reality game eXistenZ with her biggest fans. She and about a dozen others plug in and start playing, until Allegra is shot in the shoulder with a tooth.
Rewind. Perhaps Allegra is not the hero. Introducing Jude Law as Ted Pikul. Ted’s role begins as a man in the back of the church working the door. He inspects a latecomer and his fleshy game pod for recording devices that might interfere with the new game. Ted lets in the guy who will shoot Allegra with a tooth.
Yes, it is strange, but this is a David Cronenberg movie. Ted allowed an assassin to enter the game debut, who used his game pod to transport a gun made from bone and flesh, and with teeth as bullets, a weapon undetectable to devices, such as Ted’s, scanning for metal or plastic. Genius. As the assassin shouts, “Death to the demoness Allegra Cole,” he plugs the tooth in her right shoulder.
Ted and Allegra escape the church after the assassin is shot a dozen times by security guards with real guns. They drive through the country and visit friends and foes, and they plug in to game pods to play eXistenZ.
Seems straightforward. It’s not. Major spoilers coming. The winner of the game, in which Allegra plays a game designer who is shot in the shoulder with a tooth, turns out to be Allegra. eXistenZ was the game within another game, which we don’t learn until the film’s conclusion.
Allegra was the game designer. She should be the hero of this movie. Ted plays her actual assassin, and in the end he dies from bullets from her gun (in the game). He should be the villain. (I know. It’s confusing. That’s the point. I hope you saw the movie already.)
However, when Ted and Allegra are together, she is his mentor. Allegra talks Ted into getting a bio port. She explains the world of games to him. Both players fulfill the hero role and the mentor/sidekick role at different times. After the (real) game is over, one character says he thought Ted and Allegra both should have won. They murder the (real) game designer after Allegra wins the (real) game. I will discuss both characters as heroes AND as villains.
Ted is a buffoon. As the movie opens, he has just joined Antenna Research in the PR department, thus his semi-official role at the eXistenZ first game play. However, he doesn’t have a spinal game port and doesn’t believe in getting one. Thus he has never played a game made by the company for which he espouses.
Allegra is quite upset by Ted’s lack of bio port, more upset than by getting shot. Weird, no? She pressures him into an illegal bio port injection, so they can play eXistenZ to discover if it is screwed up or not after the assassination attempt.
Ted agrees and later, in a safehouse, they play Allegra’s game. Things get hairy from here on. Ted and Allegra act in ways they can’t fully control. Ted starts to find “reality”, where he’s a PR rep for Antenna, less real than eXistenZ. Allegra might already be off this deep end. For more, let’s skip to the next section.
Ted and Allegra begin showing signs of confusion in their perceived reality. Characters start showing up in eXistenZ and their real world. They lose their grip on reality shortly after they had it.
In eXistenZ (the game), Ted wants to shoot a waiter in a restaurant. He does, and he enjoys it. Allegra warned him he would be unable to control the feelings or the actions if the game script called for it.
Ted had an urge to kill someone in the restaurant. He claims it was the waiter, but really it was Allegra. Allegra makes a point that free will in games is like free will in life: there’s just enough to make it interesting.
The rest of the movie jerks the pair into and out of eXistenZ, with characters betraying them left and right. Everyone’s trying to kill everyone else.
In the end, Ted reveals himself to be the (game) assassin meant to kill Allegra. Allegra knew that from when he pointed the bone-and-tooth gun at her in the restaurant (inside eXistenZ). This aspect interested me. The game players didn’t seem to know their roles until their characters revealed the motives to them. I don’t think Ted knew he was the assassin until he said he was the assassin.
After waking up in the (real) church, the top level of existence, Ted and Allegra reveal themselves to be a couple and avid game players and also murder the true game’s designer and at least one other player. So that’s why they get classified as villains and heroes. The actions of people confuse and confound, but, as in life, there’s just enough confusion to make it interesting.
As for the acting, it was interesting. Leigh is practically catatonic as the shy game designer Allegra Cole. Her only moments of panic are when she believed her game, eXistenZ, to be threatened. In those scenes she snaps from droll player to enraged mother, protector of her greatest creation.
Law plays a rube for much of the film, and he has a perfect face for it. All the actors in eXistenZ (the movie) played their roles less as characters on an emotional continuum than as yin and yang, full opposites with no gray areas.
Cronenberg movies often eschew bang-bang kinds of action for the bedroom kind. Throw in some body horror and you have the full Cronenberg experience.
eXistenZ is that kind of movie. The movie opens in a church, where people are gathering to worship their new God–virtual reality gaming. To play these games requires a fleshy pod of some kind and a fleshy umbilical that plugs into a hole drilled directly into the player’s spine.
It’s as gross as it sounds. Cronenberg doesn’t mess around. He also messes around (wink wink). Throughout eXistenZ we see these so-called bio ports used often, sometimes close up and other times hidden behind the characters. At one point Allegra licks the tip of an umbilical before popping it into Ted. Another time she licks her finger and inserts that. A final time she inserts a metal rod that’s meant to stave off an infection, but is actually a bomb.
The effects heroes are the ones making the creatures. The eXistenZ game pods are grown from mutant amphibian eggs, and boy do we see a lot of them. They wiggle and squirt blood and expand and contract like actual life forms, which they might be.
In the second half of the movie, Allegra and Ted visit a trout farm during their eXistenZ game play. Ted works the assembly line, where he filets fresh fish-like creatures, wraps their important guts in paper like a cut of meat at a butcher shop, and sends them to techies on the floor below.
Animals have two heads, they swim in circles, some are globules spouting phlegm, all of them are gross, meaty, juicy, and unnatural. Each creature seen in eXistenZ (the game) is unique. All the colors of the rainbow can constitute a creature. Whiskers, fins, tails; you name it, the creatures could have all or none of them.
As for actual action, eXistenZ offers some. A gas station attendant named Gas (Willem Dafoe) is shot to death by Ted when the paralyzed protagonist blasts him with a bio port injector. We don’t see the bio port enter Gas, but we see the blood spout up onto Gas’s neck. This isn’t your sprayable blood, either. It’s sticky, oozy, and resembles the red corn syrup that movie blood actually is.
Don’t forget the flame thrower the trout farm contact uses to fry Allegra’s diseased bio port. That he has a flame thrower is strange, but in game logic it works because weapons are everywhere. High marks in this category for the gross and engaging body effects.
Most of the characters in eXistenZ and eXistenZ end up trying to kill Allegra. The most trustworthy is Kiri (Ian Holm), a friend of Allegra’s who installs a bio port in Ted and operates on Allegra’s game pod. Sure, he turns out to be bad, too, but I want someone for this section.
Kiri offers safe haven in a ski chalet and clean tools to help resolve Ted’s bio port problem. Kiri and his assistant open up Allegra’s game pod, stabbing and cutting it and letting blood squirt everywhere because Cronenberg.
Yeah, I can’t do it anymore. All the people are trying to kill Allegra. Even her boyfriend.
Willem Dafoe makes a brief appearance as a groveling country gas station pumper named Gas. Dafoe is great as a game character, one who exists to advance the story and appear unrealistic. As Gas pumps gas for Allegra, realization dawns that she is the new God of this world–a game developer. THE game developer. The look on his face is exactly as excessively expressive as a bad actor would be, or a crudely drawn game character. He literally grovels at Allegra’s feet.
Later, Gas injects a bio port into reluctant Ted. He’s done three in his career as a back-alley surgeon. Well, Ted will be number three. Besides injecting illegal bio ports into folks using a what’s called a “stud finder”, Gas works at the gas station. Allegra’s games came along and changed his life enough that he still runs a gas station, but he knows he does so on “the most pathetic level of reality.”
Gas is only in the game to give Ted a bio port, but Dafoe plays the character with real menace and dirtiness.
With so little action, stunt work is unnecessary. That doesn’t detract from the movie–it’s not that kind–but I can’t award points.
Once Ted kills the waiter, eXistenZ speeds up and nearly unravels. Ted and Allegra take a tour of the trout farm, where game pod mutants are grown and harvested. They return to the game emporium, their entry to eXistenZ (the game), to find an employee who demands they kill the trout farm guy, who is actually a double agent for Cortical Systems, Antenna’s rival game company. These are the first clues to game-play bleed through that confound its players.
Ted and Allegra return to the trout farm and find Allegra’s game pod is diseased. She believes her pod in the chalet has introduced a disease element into eXistenZ. Still, Allegra feels compelled to port in. She does and starts bleeding to death. Oops.
The trout farm contact comes in with a flamethrower, a common trout farm implement, I guess, and knows just what to do. His cover blown, he shouts “Death to Realism,” and fries the diseased pod as it explodes black spores over everything. Allegra knifes the guy in the back. The trout farm catches fire.
Allegra and Ted awaken in the chalet. Allegra knows that Kiri messed with her pod when he operated on it, and soon we learn that he is working for Cortical Systems as well, and wanted to destroy the only copy of eXistenZ in existence.
I was as confused as Ted by this game logic. An eXistenZ character, the game store clerk, bursts into the chalet and shoots Allegra’s diseased pod, really peppers it with bullets. The cashier/warrior announces the victory of realism.
Outside, a rag tag group of guerrilla soldiers sets fires and shoots guns across the ski complex. Kiri shows up to shoot the cashier with the tooth gun. Ted’s “dog brought me this,” he says. The dog and gun from the restaurant inside eXistenZ. Kiri then explains that he messed with Ted’s bio port and Allegra’s pod, and will defect to Cortical Systems like all of Antenna’s top brass.
Allegra takes the cashier’s machine gun and, with a smirk, peppers Kiri with bullets. “I didn’t like the way he was messing with my mind,” she explains to the bemused Ted.
Ted does an about face and announces that he’s Allegra’s true assassin. He got a bio port “to understand what I have to kill.” He’s been part of the Realism movement this whole time!
Allegra finds this amusing. She tosses a handheld detonator back and forth. She knew Ted was the real assassin ever since he pointed the bone gun at her in the restaurant and claimed he hadn’t meant to do it. She understands what Ted says. Allegra counters with “Understand that you’re dead.” She plunges the button on her detonator, which causes Ted’s back to explode. Turns out a device Allegra popped in there wasn’t to help cure his infection; it was to kill him.
With a shout Allegra says, “Death to the demon Ted Pikul.” She asks the ether, “Did I win?” No one responds. She turns around to find blue plastic on her head and hand. A dozen empty church pews are now in the grass.
Allegra, Ted, Gas, and the other characters awaken. All the key characters in eXistenZ were playing transCendenZ, the newest game from a genius game designer named Nourish, who played the trout farm contact with the terrible accent and the flamethrower. Now we learn a lot about the real characters.
Everyone had a great time. Ted and Allegra, one player thought, both deserved to win, and indeed they made it to the end. The beta testers will enjoy a certificate to buy a heavily discounted game when it’s released. Not free, discounted.
The group breaks up, and you can see the players sitting apart, looking down at gray devices that sure do resemble tablets. Nourish sits beside his colleague to discuss the game. It disturbed him, had a very anti-game theme. Ted and Allegra fetch their dog, the same dog from the game that gnawed on the bone gun in eXistenZ.
Ted and Allegra (whose hair is all straight now, not curled as it was in both game environments), ask the designer if they can ask him questions. He says, “Shoot.”
They ask him, shouldn’t the greatest game designer suffer for “the most effective deforming of reality?” They pull back a fake layer of fur from the dog. The dog was packing! Ted and Allegra draw two guns and kill the designer and his colleague. They shout Realist slogans such as Death to the demon Nourish and Death to transCendenZ.
Ted and Allegra and their dog leave the church. No security stops them, for there is none. The other players are stunned motionless and silent. The Realist game players approach the man who played the waiter, who smirks with guns pointed in his face. “Are we still in the game?”
Great question. eXistenZ provides no answer.
I can’t remember laughing during eXistenZ. However, the acting was bad, though I believe by design. Jude Law has the perfect face of an ingenue, a man capable of looking beautiful and confused simultaneously.
Law seems confused, Leigh is bored, and Dafoe is practically bipolar with his acting. All by design. Allegra, inside eXistenZ for the first time, comments that the characters are badly drawn and the dialogue sucks. It’s exactly the same as in eXistenZ (the movie), but to a stronger degree.
eXistenZ offers two worlds, both of which turn out to be game worlds. The obvious game environment is eXistenZ as Allegra created it. Characters are flat and require voice prompting. Consider the scene in which Ted and Allegra visit the game emporium and speak with its owner, D’Arcy. The owner stands in place and rotates his head in the human equivalent of an Apple rainbow pinwheel.
The game emporium is as ’90s-teleplay-set as such things get. Clothes and interior paint colors could not clash more. Items are sold on wire-frame racks. The technology is as bulky as it is cutting edge.
Action moves to a disgusting but airy trout farm/game pod factory. Housed in a barn, pod makers surround two levels of conveyor belts sending mutant animals toward employees like Ted wearing chain mail gloves and several layers of blood.
The last game location is a Chinese restaurant complete with busy tables, family style service trays, and old men wearing unbuttoned shirts playing Mah Jongg. Ted brings commerce to a halt when he blows off the face of the waiter.
A less obviously game world is the mid-level world, where Allegra is shot at the beginning of playing eXistenZ. I admit that I was partly fooled by the game levels. I thought the game started when Allegra turned on her game pod.
I knew Country Gas Station and Ski and Motel were game locations. The pod guy’s name was Gas for goodness sakes. Allegra treats them as codes with texture. They were dirty, but realistically dirty. The transCendenZ characters acted more humanly than did the eXistenZ characters.
The best setting in eXistenZ? Churches. The characters never comment on the oddity of communing to worship a maker of (virtual) reality inside a church, but viewers got it.
Keeping with Hollywood’s long scheme of copying itself, eXistenZ was the second movie released in as many months about virtual worlds inside of the real worlds, and characters unable to tell what’s real and what isn’t.
Cronenberg keeps us guessing for the beginning and the end, but the middle parts are clearly defined as game territory. Allegra jumps for joy at the Country Gas Station, where she touches the pump and walls and kicks the ground, marveling at its mimicry of real textures. The scenes inside eXistenZ are also unmistakably game scenes. Characters are not fleshed out and require prompting.
Unlike 1999’s masterpiece The Matrix, eXistenZ doesn’t ask us to question our reality. Sure, the waiter character at the end asks, with guns pointed at him, whether or not they are still playing the game. I don’t think Cronenberg wanted the viewer to question reality.
Cronenberg is more interested in the future of gaming and how it will force us to question reality. Virtual reality was practically non-existent in 1999, but less than 20 years later is playable on smartphones. In another 20 years we could have hours- and days-long games played in totally immersive worlds.
Virtual and real worlds will merge for some people. Might there be a Realism Movement that existed inside the games? Might these factions go to war? This bleak future Cronenberg fears without thinking it avoidable.
Game characters show up in a “Chinese restaurant” and murder their waiter. I’m amazed that the movie escapes blatant and subtle racism.
Credit the film for making the eXistenZ designer a woman, although Allegra became the designer character because of her desire to design games, rather than her position as a game designer. So maybe not credit?
- The accents were abysmal. By design, yes, but abysmal to hear.
- One of the games sold in the game emporium is called “Hit by a Car”.
- Allegra laughs at Ted, telling him that nobody “physically” skis anymore.
- Allegra’s first words to her fans are, “eXistenZ is not just a game.” It’s also a movie!
- The meaning of the weird capitals in eXistenZ is explained immediately. Eccleston’s character, writing on a chalkboard (which I found hilarious in a movie about an advanced virtual reality game), says that eXistenZ is “new and it’s here.” Thanks. Explains everything.
Summary (33/68): 49%
eXistenZ drags its characters through the ringer, playing games within games and questioning which level of reality is the real reality. (Oxymoronic statement?)
Viewers can guess along, too, but it’s hard to focus when disgusting body parts are bleeding everywhere all the time. Cronenberg is a master at distracting through gore.
Watching eXistenZ nearly 20 years after its release, I found much of its futurism scarily accurate. In the church in the end, after the characters have finished game play, several of them stare at their phones. This scene chilled me. The only tablet yet tried was a failure, and the iPod was still a few years away. But watching those people sit, alone, looking at a handheld device is exactly the pose shared by millions of developed world citizens today.