Existenz Movie Review

Abandon the deep-seeded sexual-social metaphors and waterdown the ick factor, and DavidCronenberg's "eXistenZ" could be aSci-Fi Channel movie.

Something of a cautionary tale about the future of virtualreality, featuring seamless multiple-layer story-within-story scenarios,Cronenberg's foundation here is the kind of what-is-reality? plot linethat has also been the basis of dozens of "Outer Limits" episodesand several recent feature films ("Dark City," "TheMatrix").

But because "eXistenZ" has been born of the mindof North America's most intelligent, off-the-wall auteur, there's so muchmore going on here, including themes of terrorism, experimental sexualityand 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 computersof today. Most everyone has been surgically fitted with new orifices inthe smalls of their backs to directly interface the central nervous system(through fleshy, veiny umbilical cords) with the mind-invading games whichhave become a common part of everyday life.

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Allegra Gellar the designerof a revolutionary game run on bio-engineered "metaflesh" pods,in which the participants help form the program. The game writes itselfthrough the minds of the players.

Opening at a secret, high-security test-marketing eventfor the new game called "eXistenZ," Cronenberg slides betweenreality and virtual reality with such seamless morphing that it is sometimesintentionally unclear what world the characters are in.

When the event is violently attacked by reality-espousingextremists, Allegra -- a cult figure in gaming circles and the target ofthe attack -- goes on the run with Ted Pikul (Jude Law), an apprehensivesecurity wonk assigned to protect her.

Under the assumption that there must have been a turncoatin the testing group, and with her game pod (an incognizant lump of livingtissue) injured in the assault and dying, Allegra persuades a reluctant"virgin" Ted to get retrofitted with a bioport so he can plugin 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 terroriststhemselves, and are lead through a surreal and ever-changing approximationof the secretive and gruesome industry that creates the "metapods."They seek out their answers in an unsanitary hatchery where the pods aregrown from mutated amphibians, and back in the real world (or is it?) theydrop in on a fellow gamer (Ian Holm) who tries to save Allegra's pod ina graphic surgery (barf bag, please).

"eXistenZ" is quintessential Cronenberg. Hisfixation with body mutilation (the bioports, biological guns made fromhalf-decayed body parts) and sexuality (the "UmbyCords" slishinginto the bioports) are the kind of inherently disturbing concepts and imagesthat 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 thanjust creeping people out. He immerses us in his eccentric, innovative (and,yes, sometimes gruesome) vision, assuming his audience is intelligent enoughto 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 ofcorny science fiction, the director's envelope-pushing, high IQ conceptsdistance this film from its comic book anchoring.

Anchoring the film in another way is Leigh's evasivelypowerful performance as Allegra, the designer who has spent so much timein her own games that she has developed an unnatural detachment from heremotions.

The sci-fi silliness is always just one misstep away, soI spent whole sections of the movie worrying that it was going to turndumb on me at any moment. But with a final, surprise torque on the twistingstory, "eXistenZ" justifies itself with a powerful payoff thatmakes some (although not much) sense of everything that came before it.

Comments

Existenz Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, Friday, April 23, 1999

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