David Cronenberg‘s 1999 science fiction horror amalgamation eXistenZ is a strange beast composed of teeth, gristle, bone and flesh as it explores transhumanism, audience behaviour and reality. This incendiary and sensual ‘ugly cousin’ of sorts to the Wachowskis’ The Matrix offers a foreboding glimpse into potential new levels of existence introduced by VR gaming. Whilst the Wachowskis focused on human survival and ‘self residual’ imagery with The Matrix, Cronenberg was more concerned with the human condition and how we approach our reality. eXistenZ is a clever satire piece which at its surface offers sentiment on the changing video game landscape of the 90s. But underneath the surface, Cronenberg examines humanity’s relationship with technology and its impact on our lives.
Though the 90s would see an influx of video games, cell phones and personal computers becoming popular, Salman Rushdie provided Cronenberg with the inspiration for eXistenZ, following an interview Cronenberg conducted with Rushdie for Spin in 1995. Rushdie’s controversial book The Satanic Verses had earned him a fatwa against his life by Muslim extremists, leading Cronenberg to the idea of a fatwa-esque vendetta against a game designer’s life. Whilst this remains an integral plot point for eXistenZ, the greater focus remains on the artificial influences on humanity and our control over what media we consume, how we consume media and why we consume media. Much like in Videodrome, Cronenberg attempts to make both overt and subtle observations about audience behaviour and media gatekeepers’ ability to influence audiences, whilst cleverly using props such as the flesh-like apparatus he has become known for.
The plot unfolds with Jennifer Jason Leigh‘s character Allegra Geller, initially introduced as a revered games designer, presenting her new gaming experience eXistenZ via her ‘bio-pod’ to a focus group. Allegra Geller is described as a “demoness” in several instances by those who oppose video games and their alleged corruption on reality, whilst those who revere her in the focus group call her a goddess. Amongst the audience of the focus group is Ted Pikul, played by Jude Law, a marketing intern sent to watch over Allegra by her employer Antenna Research. This early segment also introduces The Realist underground movement, sworn to fight reality-altering gaming. Allegra is shot by a Realist during this focus group. Notably, the attacker is using a gun made out of what appears to be bone and gristle, shooting teeth; this incident leads an escaping Allegra Geller and Ted Pikul on a journey through hostile environments and encounters with other Realists and oddities along the way. Various betrayals and deceptions occur as Geller aims to avoid Realists looking to destroy her game and Pikul aims to keep both alive whilst attempting to grasp what is reality and what is eXistenZ.
The video games or ‘bio-pods’ themselves, are of the Cronenberg style in their physical appearance of an almost erotic fleshy contraption that has an umbilical cord that ports into an individual’s lower spine, and there are several other non-subtle sexual and erotic symbols present throughout the film. A further example would be Pikul not having the required ‘bio-port’ initially, he has to be penetrated in his lower back by a large gun-like machine by a creepy gas station clerk aptly named Gas, played by Willem Dafoe. The simple name given to Dafoe’s character is a recurring motif throughout the film with a motel called Motel and gas station called Gas Station also present within eXistenZ allowing Cronenberg to suggest to the viewer the reality we are witnessing may be the game world. The plot is complex and convoluted, with personal identity changing as the shift between reality and game alter, allowing Cronenberg to question our reality and how we construct our personal identity. Several camera techniques aid in this, particularly in the opening scene with Allegra Geller framed purposefully with the audience almost entirely on the edges of the image when together on screen, as if alone in a crowded room, whilst Ted Pikul remains alienated from the crowd also at the back of the room. The austere appearance of sets and scenes that feature throughout the film are also meant to make us question which reality we are witnessing, with no phones, television screens, jewellery or other commodities of this nature intended to reflect video games graphics and perhaps the inability to replicate the complexity of detail in reality.
Cronenberg’s Videodrome is a significantly organic beast while eXistenZ is in some ways its spiritual sequel. Both films have comparable elements though Videodrome is more direct in its visuals like Tetsuo: The Iron Man. eXistenZ provides a softer (though still bizarre) eroticism; it also alludes to the convergence of audiences with technology, a merging of humanity and technology as we become engrossed and perhaps controlled by new technologies. This analogy specifically makes the film as relevant today as it was in 1999, with smartphones, tablets and other devices more prominent in everyday usage than ever before and VR gaming becoming increasingly popular. Though as the film progresses the characters Geller and Pikul begin to adopt different identities to suit the different elements of the game, intended to suggest that eXistenZ is in part about the act of performing and the roles we fulfill within society. These performances and roles exist regardless of how incongruous they feel to our sense of self, serving as a reminder that our identities are also shaped by our imposed roles within society. The film continues to blur reality in its cross examination of changes within society and technology’s impact on our self-image.
eXistenZ twenty years on remains a relevant dark and grotesque satire on postmodern elements of the human condition. Explicitly remaining true to Cronenberg’s idiosyncrasies in its sensual and textural qualities, eXistenZ references his previous films thematically and explores related themes in greater depth. Teeth, gristle, bone, skin and blood, long live the new flesh!