Why I Love… #28: eXistenZ

Year: 1999

Director: David Cronenberg

Stars: Jennifer Jason Leigh (Allegra Geller), Jude Law (Ted Pikul), Ian Holm (Kiri Vinokur), Don McKellar (Yevgeny Nourish), Willem Dafoe (Gas), Callum Keith Rennie (Hugo Carlaw), Robert A Silverman (D’Arcy Nader)

Genre: Science Fiction

1999 was a busy year for movies. Perhaps it was some pre-millennial angst that spurred such a blizzard of activity in filmmaking – who knew if you’d ever get another chance? After all, we might all be killed by Y2K viruses or apocalyptic cataclysms. Better get your story out there now. As such it was easy to miss some of the smaller films. For many, eXistenZ probably became one of the also-rans on the video rental shelf. Something mid-budget that you maybe had heard of, filed sloppily next to something like Final Destination or The Straight Story. Wasn’t it to do with virtual reality? Like The Matrix?

Well, for me, eXistenZ is far better, far more interesting than the Wachowski brothers’ CG diversion in gun porn and sermonising. Now that’s probably not going to be a popular opinion.

Right, if you’re still here let’s carry on about why eXistenZ holds a special place in my heart.

eXistenZ proved to be my entry point into a whole other world. A virtual world of the deliciously perverse and sinister. A moody, literate world that captivated with its own menacing logic. The world of David Cronenberg.

Cronenberg’s films are always masterfully constructed. The first thing that grabbed me about eXistenZ was its look. It was slick, tight, precise. I would discover that, over the years, Cronenberg and his long-time director of photography Peter Suschitsky have honed a visual shorthand that is very particular to his movies. You know when you’re watching them, no matter what the subject matter.

And also the music. eXistenZ’s fantastic story of virtual worlds within worlds is given a grim seriousness by Howard Shore’s emotive music. Another long-time collaborator with Cronenberg, the prolific Shore is always at his most interesting when working with the Canadian master of body-horror. I would put the scores to Dead Ringers and Crash in my top 10 of all time. eXistenZ’s dark, brooding music compliments the neo-noir mood perfectly.

Cronenberg, I would quickly discover, is a director unafraid to credit his audience with some intelligence. eXistenZ is rife with its own jargon; a fully realised version of the near future that doesn’t wait around explaining everything to the audience. Either you pick it up as you go along or get left behind. There are ‘bio-ports’ and ‘game pods’, ‘stud-finders’, ‘crazies’, mutant amphibians and guns made out of teeth. And a constant feeling that things are off-kilter. Unreal.

This is entirely Cronenberg’s plan; to get the viewer questioning from the beginning what is real and what is virtual. Fleeing from an attempt on her life, celebrity game designer Allegra Geller and PR nerd Ted Pikul take a drive that seems entirely artificial. The local country gas station is labelled ‘Country Gas Station’, as perhaps it might in a computer game. And Allegra, played with seductive allure by Jennifer Jason Leigh, appears constantly fascinated by the world – she is tactile and ecstatic, as though the world were her creation, a place she’s thrilled to play in.

I was also enamoured by how un-techy eXistenZ was, despite its elaborate fleshy consoles. Previously I had associated science fiction with metallic imagery. Hardware and spaceships. Cold and angular. eXistenZ’s future did not share these aesthetics. It offered a different window onto the genre that reminded me far more of literary examples, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Ballard’s short stories set in the future city of Vermillion Sands. It makes the fantastic seem a little more oddly plausible. A little closer.

The actors are all spot-on. The aforementioned Leigh has never seemed so bewitching. Jude Law is on rare form in that he’s not gratuitously annoying. He is in fact very likeable. And then there is the roster of excellent supporting players. Cronenberg gifts each of them with a memorable vocal tick or characteristic, so you remember Ian Holm’s Kiri Vinokur, or Robert A Silverman’s loopy D’Arcy Nader (Cronenberg has always had a gift for barmy character names. Barry Convex anybody?). At one point the film even knowingly references their eccentricities. But they’d be nothing without the sterling actors behind them. Willem Dafoe gets but five minutes of screen time, but he makes them count.

eXistenZ made me seek out more Cronenberg. Converted me instantly. I would come to realise that the themes he was exploring here he had already set his eyes on with 1983’s outstanding Videodrome. That tonally it shared DNA with Scanners. And with the strangely sexual interaction between characters via ‘bio-ports’, a further string to his bow of body-horror originals. Some see eXistenZ as a diluted version of past glories because it is less visceral, less openly gory. I see it as more of a refinement. And it is not without its own gelatinous grue, as anyone who remembers the Chinese restaurant scene will tell you.

Since eXistenZ, Cronenberg has concentrated on other people’s worlds, and appears to have consciously moved away from his calling cards. A literary director now, adapting novels, honing them to his own sensibilities. This has led to some interesting if not always wholly satisfying work. It was a path he was already on – earlier in the 90s he made audacious attempts at ‘unfilmable’ novels, Naked Lunch and Crash.

If I’m honest I long for him to return to his own worlds. Worlds like eXistenZ.

So if you were too busy trying to squeeze in the likes of American Beauty, Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, Being John Malkovich, Austin Powers, that dreadful Star Wars prequel, the rise of ‘J-horror’, Fight Club or that cash-cow The Matrix before 1999 turned to 2000… maybe now it’s time to think about the little guy lost in the shuffle. There’s a whole other world out there waiting for you.

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