TBT Movie Review: eXistenZ – E3: The Church Years

eXistenZ 2

Genre: Sci-Fi/Thriller

Director: David Cronenberg

Running Time: 97 Minutes

“A sign of the times.”

“Death to the demoness, Allegra Geller!”

In 1999, when this film was released, I was just becoming acquainted with the first PS console. We weren’t a well-off family and thus a few years behind when it came to consoles. My brother and I were still rocking the SEGA Genesis and Nintendo 64 but our friends were enjoying the wonders of Playstation. It was a time for DOOM, Quake, MDK and Alone in the Dark. And what a time it was… It wasn’t that long before this time that Nic and I were still enthralled by the Super Mario Bros., Paperboy, Battle Tank and Galaxian. He and I were equal opportunity gamers and would happily spend hours taking turns on the console at home or a friend’s place, or knocking around at the arcade playing Pac-Man and House of the Dead. As a result, this film blew my 13 year old mind with the possibilities it proposed for the gaming industry.

With the most recent E3 presentations by Oculus Rift, Sony’s Project Morpheus and the advent of augmented reality as demonstrated with the Hololens, I’m starting to see the true impact of films like eXistenZ and The Thirteenth Floor, both of which were completely overshadowed by The Matrix that year.

The Plot

In the future, how far into the future is left unspecified, gaming has evolved to the point of bio-mechanical game pods. These pods plug in to the user’s bio-port via an eerie umbilical cord. The game pod is fleshy and made of organic material. The bio-port taps straight into the user’s spinal cord and thus the user’s nervous system. This allows for a seamless, VR gaming experience, where the user can fully experience and manipulate the environment.

The film follows Allegra Greller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a supremely talented and famous game designer, and Ted Pikul (Jude Law), the security guard she goes on the the run with after an attempt on her life. They go off the grid entirely because there is no way of knowing who to trust. Geller convinces Pikul that she needs to check the status of her game, eXistenZ, to ensure that there is no significant damage due to the violent unplugging it experienced when she was shot. She further convinces him that the only way to fully experience the game and to ensure that there is no extensive damage, is to play the game with a “friendly” player.

There’s just one little problem. Pikul doesn’t have a bio-port. This is were things start to get a little weird but also get increasingly intriguing.

Performances & Special Effects

Jennifer Jason Leigh couldn’t act her way out of a shoebox, let alone a parking ticket but for the purposes of the character that she plays, her two-dimensional, mildly annoying, permanently stoned vibe works. You could chalk it up to her being socially awkward, which is the type of personality that people expect when dealing with anyone within the gaming community. Jude Law was the perfect counter-balance to her imbalance. The character was level-headed and logical, even when a situation was completely illogical. As the game progresses and the movie’s plot is developed, the audience meets an array of supporting characters, all of whom are phenomenal. Willem Dafoe offered, by far, my favourite performance in the film. Actors playing the seemingly unimaginative NPCs with shitty dialogue and stilted accents made it feel more like a game rather than a movie, not too dissimilar from game NPCs today.

Surprisingly, for a Sci-Fi film, the special effects where not overpowering. Had this been more of an action film, there would have been massive FX. The entire purpose of VR gaming, especially within the film, is to give the player an authentic experience of an alternate world but a world not that different from the real world. There are slight changes to the environment and textures but nothing to truly make you sit up and call it out as fake. There are a few scenes with the game pods, which are generally creepy and a bit porno but believable, and there is a scene with lots of explosions and fire, all of which was well executed.

The Review

There is absolutely no shortage of foreshadowing in this film. Some of it is extremely subtle and some of if it so overt, it’s covert. There is a moment at the start of the movie where Geller is looking around a gas station and kicking stones and dust about. She comes across as a little loopy but later, when you piece it together, you realise that she was testing and feeling the game environment. While playing together, Pikul says that he wants to take a break because he cannot feel “the texture of the real world” which questions how fragile the line is between real and simulated. The film beautifully illustrated the addiction that some people suffer when gaming and how some players can no longer “unplug” from the game. There are people out there who would rather exist on a virtual platform than in the real world because they simply cannot handle the demands and social stressors that exist out here.

The hyper-realism in gaming is something that I have been thinking about for years and does make you wonder if there is such a thing as too much realism. This was especially highlighted when Pikul realises that he is going to have to kill a game character and Geller says: “You won’t be able to stop it, you might as well enjoy it.” This scene reminded my of the torture scene in GTAV and the fact that it cannot be skipped and is the only route for plot progression in the game.

The film also shows us the other side of this dilemma. There are people who vehemently hate gaming and everything that the industry produces, often blaming violence in society on video games. Any gamer has met at least one of these people in real life, I guarantee it. And though I do think that hyper-realism together with VR and augmented reality are going to revolutionise gaming, I don’t think that gamers are going to be hijacking and killing people left, right and centre, in real life.

This is a truly fantastic film, especially for those of us that have been gaming for 20+ years. It juxtaposes the questions about the future of gaming set 16 years ago and the reality of the way gaming has developed in the present. The film is almost prophetic in its message and its execution. Anyone interested in gaming or some real existential questions would thoroughly enjoy this film.

My rating: 4/5

Buy or rent eXistenZ on Amazon.com

You might like:

The Matrix

The Thirteenth Floor

The Cell

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