I can certainly see why this movie has its fans, and I can certainly see why this movie is so commonly compared to The Matrix. This is a good movie with a lot of great parts to it, and both eXistenZ and The Matrix deal with computer simulations that are difficult to discern from actual reality. There are those who say that eXistenZ is actually superior to The Matrix, or even that The Matrix is a rip off of eXistenZ.
Neither is true. eXistenZ is a gem, and an unfortunately little-known gem but aside from those who are rabid fans of Naked Lunch and those who lament the passing of such Role Playing Games as Burn Cycle for the Philips CD-I, I believe that we can all agree to keep these separate and healthily unique. Neither is derivative of the other, and barring a massive amount of industrial spying, it's not really possible as The Matrix was released in the US about a month before eXistenZ and that's not enough time for rip-offs, kiddo!
Director David Cronenberg (see also: Spider) is an unquestionable devotee and influencee of William S. Burroughs, and such influence and devotion is seen especially here. In many ways this movie is set in the same universe as the events of Naked Lunch and shares many of the same concepts (such as living, organic machinery). Both films deal with regions cut off from the main vein of society, and both films deal in no small part with marred reality and confusion over what reality means to whom. What separates eXistenZ from Naked Lunch is the fact that eXistenZ does not suck mass quantities of crusty, cancerous, raw monkey lung out loud like a turbo-charged eLectroluX on acid. (Naked Lunch! NOT A FAN!).
eXistenZ begins in a rustic church somewhere in sticks-ville U.S.A. Here they are performing a market test of a new Virtual Reality Game known as eXistenZ (pronounced like "Eggs Is Tense" not "existence"). An assassination attempt on the game's creator Allegra Geller (well-played with gleeful ambivalence by Jennifer Jason Leigh) by a fanatical anti-VR group sends her on the run with her body guard/ "Public Relations Nerd" Ted Pikul (Jude Law sounding like a yank... usually). Along the way Geller and Pikul must enter into eXistenZ together to see if the game system itself was damaged, and hope they can get back out!
What is unique about this film that separates this from The Matrix, Harsh Realm, The Thirteenth Floor or Johnny Mnemonic is the unique approach to every aspect of the film's devices. For example, this not-too-distant-future is not that of Blade Runner. Rather, we are shown a strangely rustic and woodsy rural area in which game creators work in seclusion on their games (probably connected via internet). The future seems bland and not flashy. In that the testing itself took place in a country Church, not a hotel or office building, this alone is telling (and refreshing in its uniqueness). The game controllers themselves are more Naked Lunch than X-Box. Each game controller is a living organism, not an animal, but a fully programmable wet-wired flesh-piece that writhes around on a players lap as he or she plays. The Game controllers can get sick and can die, as well as infect the player if ill itself. The game connects to the player not through a VR Helmet but through a Bio-Port, a wet wired opening in the spine which allows for a direct neural interface with the game. One does not "play" eXistenZ, one enters and lives within eXistenZ! It's V.R. directly into the Nervous System... No port, no gaming!
eXistenZ soon proves to be a very realistic game in which the subject of life is a war between "Realism" and "Virtual Reality!" The concept is that this form of Virtual Reality becomes so real that it cheapens reality. Therefore an entire group of people assign themselves to protect "reality" and destroy those who promulgate the imagined world. The question abounds of who these people are, and do they extend passed the bounds of the game eXistenZ.
It's interesting to watch Law and Leigh travel from one reality to another and attempt to discover what is real, what is game, and when they are in which reality (because the game and the movie like to fool you). There are several nods to prior David Cronenberg films as well as a distinctively Burroughs-like mind-fuck every seventeen seconds. Unique weapons like a gun made of seafood that shoots human molars at its victims add a surrealistic element to an already weird movie. Cameos from Ian Holm, Willem DaFoe, Sarah Polley, Kris Lemche and Christopher Eccleston don't hurt either. It feels good to be taken off your toes by the traversing twists of the film. You never are quite sure where the VR ends and the Reality begins! In short, this is not a derivative film, and it's a great change of pace from the same old slop we see so often.
On the other hand the film is a tad predictable, and the tenseness we are expected to feel while our two heroes are on the run is never successfully conveyed. Law's Pikul easily changes his mind when the script (or is it the game?) calls for it, regardless of his prior convictions. A few questions are left unanswered such as why game creators are so ignorant of their own product. Much like the television show Lexx the concept of recycled body organs plays a big part in the creation of the games and their controllers. To an extent this is fascinating and thorough in the storytelling... but on the flip side it is somewhat nauseating. Finally, from time to time the special effects seem rubbery and cheap. One character is assassinated by a head wound, but the head in question is obviously a mock up. Further, the seafood tooth-gun, the game controllers and other garish denizens of the twisted mind of Cronenberg look a lot more like rubber than flesh. Much about eXistenZ the game and eXistenZ the movie that could be considered cheesy or incongruous (even the Gregory Benford Moments) can be explained away due to the multi-tiered levels of the game(s) that are being played here. What is the game and what isn't is the key.
I do want to give Cronenberg credit here for doing something that isn't the norm. This is a truly Sci-Fi film that does not simply cater to expected Sci-Fi conceits. This is a truly original film that can only suffer from the inevitable comparisons to the admittedly superior The Matrix. Better production values and a less silly resolution might have made this a complete classic. As it is, it's a good film to watch at least for the fun of it. Three Stars for eXistenZ. It's a good, and effectively confusing movie, mixing the grotesque with the rustic with the mundane and simultaneously sickening and engrossing the viewer. All in all though, it suffers from mediocre special effects, gratuitous violence and predictability. While it is true that The Matrix is a superior film to which eXistenZ is bound to be compared, this is best viewed for its own merits and enjoyed for its own originality. On one hand I can see why this is a cult classic with many fans proclaiming its superiority. On the other hand, I can see why this is most commonly seen at 11 AM Saturdays on the Sci-Fi Channel. Take both into account!
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