Jennifer Jason Leigh, in one of her best performances, plays video game developer Allegra Geller in by David Cronenberg exist. She embodies Allegra Geller, a game designer known everywhere and who is a living legend for her followers, all addicted to her virtual reality games. For years she worked on a new game and a new game system, a set to change all the rules. This puts her in danger, as the other game manufacturing companies are literally at war with each other.
The surprisingly underrated film is themed around revolution and civil war which, combined with its take on virtual reality, advanced technology and the clash of political ideologies, makes exist one of the most disturbing films of Cronenberg’s career.
Cronenberg creates a video game in eXistenZ
At the beginning of the film, there is a research and development test for a group of lucky winners who can be the first to try the new exist system. But there are immediate problems. Someone smuggles an organic gun past metal detectors, a weapon that looks like a strange sea creature and uses human teeth as bullets. An assassination attempt is made on Allegra by individuals from the realist movement, who believe her acting is demonic and dangerous to real reality. Ted (a great Jude Law), a security guard, drives off with Allegra as they go into hiding, fleeing their would-be killers. No one can be trusted.
She created a new game system known as exist, a virtual reality game in which the player has a bio-port strapped to their back through a hole drilled in the spine, and a pod device that hooks directly into that hole. The human basically serves as a long USB port, and the meaty, monstrous-looking gaming system can access the user’s memories, desires, desires, and fears; it is a fusion of man and machine. Except that these devices are not made of fully synthetic components. What makes these gambling portals different (and controversial) is that they are living, breathing things.
They are made by breeding certain types of mutated fish-reptile hybrids that grow into living breathing apparatus capable of being injured and killed, and saved by surgery. They can get sick, and in one scene, when a portal is broken, two doctors perform gruesome surgery on it, saving the organic game device. Ted, while on the run with Allegra (who treats his bioport as if it were her baby), gets such a hole put in his back, experiencing for the first time the virtual reality vision of Cronenberg, and he can’t tell the difference.
Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh go virtual in eXistenZ
The devices, the act of inserting a meaty pod into someone’s back and the whole concept of exist is the epitome of Cronenberg, reminiscent of his films like Videodrome, where the organic and the inorganic can unite and become one. As Videodrome and his new movie Future Crimes, exist presents a world of competing politics and philosophies warring over technology, ideologies, art and entertainment. Allegra survives another attack, and it’s clear that there are powerful interests, either aligned with the realist movement or corporate rivals, out to destroy her and her game.
When Ted first connects to a bioport, it opens up new worlds for him. This in turn makes it impossible to tell which is the real world and which is the simulated artificial world. It’s like when Neo from The matrix takes the pill that wakes him up from the false reality he was experiencing before. This is a very dangerous concept, because then we can never really know if this world is the real world or if we are just characters in someone else’s game.
Allegra’s realistic enemies denounce its virtual reality devices mainly for this reason, which explains why there are spies everywhere, spies willing to kill and die for a cause they are dedicated to. Like the thin line between virtual and real reality, it’s nearly impossible to tell who’s on your side and who’s not.
Philip K. Dick meets body horror
Besides being a typical Crronenberg “body horror” film, it’s also a Philip K. Dick type film where reality itself is questioned. While Cronenberg wrote the screenplay himself and it’s not based on anything like the work of Philip K. Dick, exist presents a world where you cannot trust what you see and experience. It’s like in Plato’s philosophical allegory of the Cave, where a man in a cave can only perceive shadows, and therefore thinks shadows are all there is. This is the dilemma of the actors of the game in the film: to assume that their world is real and more than an illusion, rather than mere shadows made of a reality that we cannot access.
In a revealing scene, Ted murders the manager of a Chinese restaurant. The weapon he uses is made up of pieces of the freakish fish he eats, and he shoots the man twice in the face, killing him. Since Ted frequently expresses confusion about when he is in the VR world and when he is in the real world, he may have committed a murder in real life.
Virtual Reality is the ultimate disconnection from reality, an active dissociation. Plug in and the world you knew is gone, now populated by virtual characters that aren’t real. We can end up spending a lot of time maintaining this facade, living in the unreality where we and our lives are different and more meaningful and important. This virtual world and the derealization of the senses lead to a lack of the most basic need to communicate and be intimate.
In this way, director David Cronenberg comes closest to adapting a book by Philip K. Dick, where the rules of consciousness and time are put on hold. Only very few filmmakers have managed to turn one of his books into a great movie, so much do they deal with philosophical ideas and political ideologies where there is a rejection of reality and self-concept. Cronenberg had already made two films based on books that seemed unsuitable – William S. Burroughs naked lunch and JG Ballard Accident. Both films are excellent and prove that Cronenberg has some sort of magical power that allows him to film the unfilmable.
The disease of ideology and entertainment in eXistenZ
Illness is another idea discussed in exist (and Future Crimes). Some players in Allegra’s VR game may inadvertently give the game an inadvertent sickness, as it lacks human power; a game module can be infected, even by ideology. Conversely, the film asks if entertainment can be a vehicle for a dangerous ideology, not just video games and virtual reality, but also movies and literature, not to mention technology.
David Cronenberg’s film is a work of grotesque genius. Some of the animals, gaming devices, and sea creatures we see are disgusting and brilliantly constructed with some of the director’s crudest special effects. The way it films the game’s virtual world is brilliant, creating a strange valley where everything is slightly off. This 1999 film would be Cronenberg’s last true body horror film for 23 years (until Future Crimes), and finds it at the perfect link between the gory horror of his early films and more psychological dramas like Spider, Eastern promisesand A story of violence.
exist, however, is Cronenberg at his best and best, diving deep into his unseemly vision at the peak of his game. Welcome to Revolution Chair.