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Film Reviews

Virtual Content and Its Discontents

Just as David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) came off as an organic reaction to a terrible new wasting disease, his new movie crystallizes the confusions of an epoch that can't decide whether it's the Entertainment Era, the Information Age, or the Digital Millennium. Named for a fictional "game system," eXistenZ takes place in a future where the explosion of game technology has merged machinery and biology. The game system plugs right into a player's own nervous and metabolic systems and connects in open-ended ways to his or her own experiences and impulses. Cronenberg follows the game's creator, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and her bodyguard, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), as eXistenZ drops them into an alternate reality where Allegra's enemies -- let's call them vulgar realists -- turn out to be everywhere, armed to the teeth.

At a time when much of our national debate comes down to whether the country can tell a war from a computer game, eXistenZ seizes on that dangerous muddle and (unlike The Matrix) makes something witty and coherent out of it. It's Cronenberg's most assured and enjoyable movie in more than a dozen years. Much of the film's fun comes from the way he creates a novel kind of sex comedy out of an uproariously messy sort of sci-fi invention. The eXistenZ game-pod, made from synthetic DNA and amphibian eggs, looks like a flesh-covered kidney with multiple nipples. The players link to it through a gnarled, enormous, perversely phallic "UmbyCord." And the UmbyCord links to them through their individual "bioport," which on the inside connects to the spine and outside quivers like a hungry orifice. When the players palpate their game-pods or arouse their bioports, what ensues is somewhere between the autoerotic and the automatic and at times resembles what Monica would call "messing around."

The setup gives us Leigh's Allegra, goddess of game development, preparing to play her new masterpiece, eXistenZ, with a focus group gathered in a church hall in the sticks. In this creepy netherworld, a test match for a game system has elements of Judgment and Election days and maybe opening night. Yet the momentous aura suffuses the melodrama with sardonic humor rather than inflate and bust it up.

The supporting players look totally committed and involved, but they all seem to be missing key ingredients -- it's as if they need bioports to complete them. Cronenberg builds this perception into the ambiance and the narrative rather than making it a "point" about our addiction to sensation; in this way he allows viewers to maintain a skeptical distance without taking the sting out of his laughs and jolts. His abettors in this seductive form of cinematic alienation are Peter Suschitzky and Carol Spier, contemporary masters of cinematography and production design respectively, who manage to keep the settings suitably generic -- like, for instance, the "rural church hall" -- while imbuing them with the unsettling fairy-tale shades of a haunted house in a deep wood.

It's fair to report, without giving too much away, that a would-be assassin disrupts the initial match with the cry, "Death to the demon Allegra!" That sends Allegra hurtling through the countryside with Ted, a part-time security guard and full-time PR geek. More than just to nurse her own wound, Allegra wants to save her true lifeblood -- her game system. She fears it's been damaged, even infected during the attack; to check it out she needs to play with someone else she's sure is "friendly." So poor squeamish Ted gets fitted with a bioport and jumps spine-first into a virtual world he never stepped foot in before now. The eXistenZ game system sets him and Allegra down into a weird arcade and then into someplace called the Trout Factory, where the innards of watery mutants are used to manufacture game-pods. As things turn out, the same forces that catalyzed the assassin in the church hall exist in this alternate reality. To Allegra's foes eXistenZ is the antithesis of authentic existence and Allegra the Antichrist. What starts as a euphoric trip becomes Allegra and Ted's not-so-excellent adventure.

All of Leigh's quirks work for her as Allegra: For once, she really seems to be creating a character out of self-absorption and dreaminess and a fragile, hard-to-pin-down sexuality. And Law, who was over-the-top (or under-the-bottom) as Lord Alfred Douglas in Wilde (1998), appears to enjoy playing a regular guy. Leigh is a bit claylike, Law a smidgen plasticine -- yet those qualities fit their respective characters: an artist who forms herself through work and a yuppie who aims to get ahead in a brave new world. They enable Cronenberg to twist the film this way and that without losing its integrity.

The central joke of the movie isn't hard to figure out; what's fun is how many gags Cronenberg can funnel into it, from alarming special-effects slapstick (like a squiggly micro-pod popping itself whole into a bioport) to beautifully timed routines about the nature of eXistenZ, er, existence. In the virtual world, when Ted resists following the rules of the game, he throws the other characters into a "game loop" in which they repeat previous behavior -- it's a primal riff on philosopher Henri Bergson's theory of comedy as disrupted habit. But not all the curlicues are joy rides. At one point the game impels Ted to commit murder. He resists, in vain, but Allegra eggs him on and urges him to savor the act. In a nonmoralistic way, the film explores how the extreme excitement of gamesmanship -- aesthetic or kinetic -- bleeds through into life. Ted starts to feel as if he's "disconnected from my real life," as if he's "losing touch with the texture of it." But Allegra responds, "It means your nervous system is fully engaging with the game architecture. The game is a lot more fun when it starts to feel realer than real."

Blithe, bleak joker that he is, Cronenberg takes an adage that usually comes draped in positive platitudes -- "art changes you" -- and stands it on its head, letting all the loose change roll out. The results are some of the deftest pieces of caricature he has yet committed to film. Willem Dafoe is surprisingly robust and hilarious as a gas station attendant known as "Gas," who feels that Allegra's game systems have transformed him, though after playing them he's still a grease monkey. (His favorite Allegra creation is "ArtGod: Very spiritual. God the artist, God the mechanic. They don't write them like that anymore.") And Ian Holm, after his overrated bout of emotional rigidity in The Sweet Hereafter (1997), regains his satiric twinkle as an enigmatic Eastern European game-pod surgeon who jokes that dealing with materials like amphibian eggs has turned him and his assistant into "glorified veterinarians."

There's no question that Cronenberg's heart is with the gamemakers. The script, referring to the plot to eliminate Allegra, uses the term Fatwa (a la Salman Rushdie), and Cronenberg peppers the film with potshots at the commercial and competitive pressures put on popular artists and at the obsessive perfectionism they inflict on themselves. (Allegra rates one of her characters as "not very well drawn" and sniffs, "His dialogue was just so-so.") Yet Cronenberg doesn't let himself, or Allegra, off the hook. Even in an amusement like eXistenZ, where game parts are sex toys, Cronenberg wants art to play with fire -- and artists to shoulder the risks. This time out, the result is a movie mind-game with an erotic tingle.

Written and directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, and Willem Dafoe.

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Michael Sragow

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