At twilight’s end, the shadow’s crossed, a new world birthed, the elder lost.
Yet on the morn we wake to find that mem’ry left so far behind.
To deafened ears we ask, unseen, which is life, and which the dream?
Allegra: You’re stuck now, aren’t ya? You want to go back to the Chinese restaurant because there’s nothing happening here. We’re safe. It’s boring.
Ted: It’s worse than that. I’m not sure… I’m not sure here, where we are, is real at all.
Our final film of Killtoberfest 3: Third Time’s the Harm, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, came out in 1999, but with the advent of the Oculus, augmented reality, and the gamification of modern life, the film is relevant once more and will only get more relevant as these technological and social trends continue–the way The Fly will be become relevant once we invent teleportation and the question of what to do with Brundleflies becomes an important political issue, and the way Videodrome will become relevant as soon as we invent the VHS.
Having seen it before, I didn’t remember eXistenZ being scary. Upon a rewatch, however, I realized that that’s not at all what it’s going for. The film wants nothing less to shake your confidence in your own reality. The dominant emotions are unease, as the film carefully orchestrates technique to refuse you the sense that you fully understand what is happening and why, and dread, as the film’s spiral narrative structure brings you again and again to a moment of betrayal, denouncement, and assassination. Like the score, the plot is always descending but never arriving, forever walking down the Penrose stair.
The story begins on level one of the reality staircase, a landing to which it will return: Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is introduced at a unique video game testing event, the unveiling of a virtual reality game called eXistenZ (“Small ‘E’, capital ‘X’, capital ‘Z’. It’s new, it’s from Antenna Research, and it’s here… right now.”). eXistenZ and games like it are downloaded from fleshy, bulbous, organic “game pods” directly into the user’s spinal through “bioports.” (Microsoft take note.) These games are enormously popular, and the ability to truly be someone else for a while is a transcendental, almost spiritual experience to some people. (A gas station attendant argues at one point that thanks to these games he is now only a gas station attendant “on the most pathetic level of reality.”) As the top creative in the industry, Geller is revered, more saint than celebrity, and it’s fitting that this test takes place in a church. But some in this society, Realists, believe that the ubiquity of perfect simulation damages the human connection to reality, and are willing to use violence to further their cause–after sneaking a weapon into the test through security, one of them attempts to assassinate “the demonness Allegra Geller”, and soon Allegra is on the run with Antenna Research marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law), seeking a place to hide from her enemies and a way to test the integrity of eXistenZ.
David Cronenberg has a long and fascinating filmography as one of the finest horror directors alive (although he seems to have given that up in the past decade in favor of thrillers and psychological dramas). A true auteur, his obsessions are consistent across decades: body horror, psychology, technology, sex, the translation of emotions into physical (often surreal) form. eXistenZ may be his most thematically rigorous work; every aspect of its creation is carefully aimed at proving that reality (or at least cinematic reality) is indistinguishable from a perfect simulation of reality, and all of Cronenberg’s lifelong interests are aligned to that purpose. You have body horror and the vaginal metaphor in Ted’s bioport (which Allegra explicitly treats like a sexual orifice she’d just love to get her probe into) and his fear of it getting infected; you have the mixture of the biological and the technological in the recurring bone-gun and the game pods (which are living, breathing, pulsing creatures that one operates by rubbing and stroking–kind of the way you turn on a PS4, actually); you have the meta-perspective of the film continually evaluating its own entertainment value (“You know, my accent in the game was so thick that I could hardly understand myself”); and then the psychological headtrip not just of confusing reality and simulation but the way both become expressive of the emotions, concerns, and sentiments of the players involved–just as a film inevitably takes on the personality and interests of its creator.
What’s most fascinating about the film is the way it uses the sci-fi notion of advanced virtual reality gaming to comment on itself, not only through philosophical asides and the confusion of our newbie perspective character Ted, but by running this semi-satirical vision of the future through multiple variations, each of which is an unknown number of steps away from reality. The technology shifts on each level to entirely new designs the reflect the same mix of organics and electronics, and each sequence takes on a tour of a new aspect of the social ramifications, from video game repair techs who act more like veterinarians to the “factory” where gamepods are constructed from mutated amphibians to a whole range of zealots, adherents, spies, and corporatists, each reacting in different ways to the fundamental feeling which Ted describes of perfect virtual reality: “I’m feeling a little disconnected from my real life. I’m kinda losing touch with the texture of it. You know what I mean? I actually think there is an element of psychosis involved here.”
It’s not just the characters who lose their ability to distinguish reality from simulation; we the viewer have a much more difficult task, to distinguish one level of simulation from another. This is all just a movie, but which part is the movie and which part the game within the movie and which part the game within the game within the…? Cronenberg obfuscates the truth by filming the ostensibly real segments in a manner less real than the ostensibly false segments. An early driving scene, for instance, is supposedly reality but makes heavy use of obvious rear projection (an outdated technique in which driving scenes are simulated by placing a car on a soundstage in front of a screen onto which is projected a shot of the moving road); we’re distracted, if we notice, or simply unnerved, so that it’s hard to believe in the plot. In contrast, later sequences we’re told take place in the game feature much more elaborate production design, lots of extras, real stunts and fire/explosion effects–all elements that are achieved practically, and thus are more “real” from the perspective of evaluating a film’s production. Other techniques align all scenes across the film as feeling the same, whether we’re told they’re real or not, from the plain, even lighting schemes (“real”) to the odd, off-kilter performances (“unreal”). Elements that would otherwise seem to be flaws are probably deliberate attempts to confuse and mislead, like the way Jude Law is fundamentally miscast–no matter who he is supposed to be here, he never seems to quite fit the part.
And the plot moves forward like a video game no matter what’s happening (a video game that often resembles those by David Cage, or Bioware RPGs, or the new Deus Ex). Character interactions are portrayed like puzzles (say the right thing to trigger the next sequence, or convince them you’re “friendly”), environments are presented structurally like video game levels with their own rules and objectives, and Allegra and Ted find themselves compelled to take those actions which will move the story along, even if those actions are irrational. At one point Ted hits pause, ascending to what is apparently reality–only Allegra and Ted immediately start making out, something she previously characterized as in-game behavior meant as a cheap ploy for audience interest. It’s possible that the “real” game doesn’t even have a pause function, that there is no real way to tell what’s truly happening. The only thing for sure is that the game is never over, and you’ve already lost. Death to eXistenZ. Long live the new flesh–whatever that flesh may be.
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