eXistenZ (1999)

*. Many years ago, I had a conversation with an award-winning porn actress whose name I will not reveal. At some point our talk, as it so often will do, turned to the subject of gangbangs and multiple penetrations. About which she said that the adult industry had gone as far as it could go unless they wanted to start sticking dicks in her ear or creating a new orifice.
*. If nothing else, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ has a jokey answer to that, giving people a new orifice or bio-port at the base of their spines so that they can jack into a gaming system by way of an umbilical cable. Technology to the rescue!
*. The main idea here about virtual reality being a dangerous new kind of drug/porn had already been explored by Cronenberg in Videodrome, but it was really big in the 1990s. In hindsight, this isn’t what happened. Instead of VR we got social media; instead of headsets, iPhones. There would be VR porn, but it would remain a niche. The real future of porn would be in its amateurization and ubiquity. The nightmare worlds of eXistenZ, or Strange Days (1997) remained unrealized (though I think Videodrome still has a cautionary message for us today).
*. So eXistenZ is a film of its time. It came out just after what I’ve called the Year of the Simulacrum, which also saw The Matrix, Dark City, and The Truman Show. How could we be sure what was real anymore, and what was a media construct or game? That question gives this movie its punchline, which I found charming in an obvious sort of way. Unlike most of Cronenberg’s nightmares, eXistenZ doesn’t want to be taken all that seriously, and the threat level is low.

*. It is, I think, a black comedy. There are those ridiculous accents in eXistenZland. There’s the People Hit by a Car game box that references Crash. There’s the sight of Willem Dafoe about to ram bio-port virgin Jude Law (soon to be People Magazine‘s Sexiest Man Alive) from behind with that giant power tool. Jacking into the bio-port as anal sex, complete with lube and fingering, is a running gag that doesn’t run out of steam. And then at the end there’s that punchline I mentioned. So relax and enjoy.
*. One thing that is kind of hard to square is why the world’s greatest game designer has created a virtual reality that looks so much like a low-budget Canadian film. eXistenZ isn’t a dull or depressing movie, but the game eXistenZ seems like a real downer. You get to be a secret agent working in a fish-processing plant? Sign me up!
*. I like the cast. I think I’ve loved Jennifer Jason Leigh in everything I’ve seen her in. Jude Law is even prettier and makes a good foil. Ian Holm is fittingly alien. Willem Dafoe enjoys himself. Don McKellar and Sarah Polley are both so Toronto with their bland, superior air of intelligent, down-market affluence that they made me feel like I was back in university.
*. There’s the usual yucky stuff that’s kind of funny, a two-headed lizard that actually doesn’t look out of place, and some philosophical talk that never takes itself seriously. The result is a more lightweight Cronenberg, but one that’s perfectly enjoyable. In retrospect I think it marks a point where the future was starting to leave Cronenberg behind, but not leaving him without something to say.

19 thoughts on “eXistenZ (1999)

      1. Bookstooge

        Well, I guess that proves it then. Bins are bins are bins.
        When you going to do another Binstagramm post anyway? Even a virtual one would go a long way in reviving the fad I think…

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I’ll look into it. But bins aren’t really a fad. Even if you’re not always thinking of them, they still have to be emptied. They don’t just go away.

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