Welcome to the future - it's broken. Cronenberg helpfully defines mediocrity for us.
Since Sony busted open the demographic with the Playstation, gaming seems to have moved far closer to mainstream entertainment. Most attempts of translating games to the big screen have fallen somewhere between disappointing and utter rubbish, so perhaps a better idea was to create an entirely new game to base a film around. David Cronenberg's irritatingly spelt eXistenZ sets itself in the near future where the virtual reality dream that's been kicking around for the last decade or so has final been realised, a game that is so realistic it might as well be real.
The film opens at a pre-release trial of the world's greatest game designer Allegra Geller's new game, eXistenZ from Antenna Research. It promises to be wholly revolutionary, a spiffy new entertainment experience. The trial involves everyone 'porting' into the 'meta-flesh' 'game-pods'. If you're a fan of poorly defined technobabble, this is the movie for you. The test is cut short by a failed assassination attempt with an unusual looking gun, later revealed to be built of bone firing a tooth projectile through some unspecified means.
Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Antenna's marketing trainee Ted Pikul(Jude Law) go into hiding in a world terribly similar to our own, yet odd enough to be a touch more interesting. Strange mutant creatures populate this mildly interesting land, and it's shot in a mildly interesting way. This I can only assume to be another of Cronenberg's attempts to tone down his penchant for the bizarre to achieve the mass market success of The Fly after the widely reviled tabloid-baiting Crash. The results are fairly conventional and never achieve the giddy highs (or lows, for that matter) that we have seen from him, and it seems to apply over the board. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law turn in largely by rote performances, giving little reason to care about them. Howard Shore's scoring is more worthy of remark, although not his finest. This theme recurs over every area of the film, competent but generally unremarkable.
The film takes on a little more pace once Allegra convinces Ted to have a gameport installed in his spine, so he can experience this new gaming sensation. Allegra is desperate to go in the game world to find out if the game is still functioning properly after the shocks it has taken, and it would appear to be, sort of. In the game they enter another game, which sadly for them seems to continue the theme of everyone vs. them, with yet more assassination attempts as they try to figure out what's happening. They never really find a suitable explanation, and hence neither do we, leaving me with a vague sense of dissatisfaction about the whole thing.
On first viewing the ending provides an interesting twist, and left me immediately thinking 'that was pretty good', or thoughts to that effect. It certainly explains away a few of the seeming inconsistencies in the movie, allowing you to do the usual 'kicking yourself for not noticing' procedure on re-watching it. However, if you make the critical error of stopping to think about any of it, you will realise that the twist entirely violates the internal logic of the film, making the actions of some of the characters harder, or perhaps impossible to explain. Let's just say the game's rules and character motivations seem entirely out of whack and move on.
Most acclaim for this movie falls back on the standard sci-fi get out clause of 'It's all good rollicking fun as long as you don't make any attempt to think about it'. I've seen this applied to too many sci-fi films for too long now and I'm refusing to put up with it any more. Science fiction as a genre seems to suffer a higher proportion of poorly thought out plot devices, constructs and plain appalling writing than almost anything else, yet maintains an aura of purporting to be deeper than it actually is. This pretentiousness is not evident in other genres that know that they are nothing more than pop-corn fests, such as your Arnie-like blockbuster or slasher film, so it becomes substantially more irritating when sci-fi flops around pretending to be works of art while having plot holes you could fly a Star Destroyer through.
This sounds like I'm coming down overly hard on this particular movie for the generalised faults of a genre, and eXistenZ is not the greatest offender I've witnessed. Yet the faults are still there, and they're still annoying. When considered along with the sub-par performances by Law and Leigh (predictably acted off the screen by a great supporting cast, Dafoe, Holm, Eccleston and McKellar make far more of their roles than the vanishingly small amount of screen-time devoted to them seems possible). The set design is unremarkable, the gamepods look ridiculous and Cronenberg's continual attempts at shoehorning crude sexual imagery into every film descends into the realms of self-parody in places.
Despite its flaws, it isn't boring, which to my mind is the worst criticism that can be leveled at a movie. However it does fall victim to suffering an almost equally upsetting trait, and on not generally associated with Cronenberg - a lack of vision. Why create a world largely similar to our own with a few incongruous oddities rather than a fully developed alternative-yet-grounded-in-familiarity world such as 2001 or even Solaris? Easier said than done, sure, but Cronenberg has proven time and time again he's capable of it. Films such as The Fly, Videodrome and Scanners remain far better examples of Sci-Fi, and far better examples of Cronenberg's work.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.
Jude Law (Ted Pikul)
Ian Holm (Kiri Vinokur)
Willem Dafoe (Gas)
Don McKellar (Yevgeny Nourish)
Christopher Eccleston (Seminar Leader)