eXistenZ (1999)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #564


Number of Views: Two
Release Date: April 23, 1999
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi/Body Horror
Country of Origin: Canada, United Kingdom, France
Budget: $15,000,000
Box Office: $2,856,712
Running Time: 97 minutes
Director: David Cronenberg
Producers: David Cronenberg, András Hámori, Robert Lantos
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Special Effects: Stephan Dupuis, Kelly Lepkowsky
Visual Effects: James Isaac
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Score: Howard Shore
Editing: Ronald Sanders
Studios: Canadian Television Fund, Dimension Films, Harold Greenberg Fund, The Movie Network, Natural Nylon, Téléfilm Canada, Serendipity Point Films, UGC
Distributors: Miramax Films, Momentum Pictures, Alliance Atlantis
Stars: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley, Christopher Eccleston, Willem Dafoe, Robert A. Silverman, Oscar Hsu, Kris Lemche


Suggested Audio Candy

[1] Martin O’Donnell & Michael Salvatori “Halo”

[2] Howard Shore “eXistenZ by Antenna”


Before I commenced my pilgrimage as a scribe, I was pretty much a full-time gamer. Seldom seen without a controller in my sweaty palms, I whiled away the hours saving the planet from all manner of bogus threats and, to give you an idea of how committed I was to my endeavor, my controls configuration was habitually inverted. First person shooters were my bread and butter as they delivered you that much closer to the action and afforded the short-term escape from my mundane existence that I craved. Technology was rapidly advancing and graphics becoming more realistic with each new console being unveiled. Indeed, I lived in hope of seeing the day when the experience became even more intimate. No more gamepads or scart leads, just the ability to jack in to a world far more fascinating and colorful than the one I currently inhabited.


Eventually I began to question what I was really achieving other than a bloated gamerscore the bragging rights that came with it. The birth of my son put things into perspective as the feeling of becoming a parent far outweighed that of annihilating a swarm of acrobatic alien scum hell-bent on global domination. With that and, in a heartbeat, I called time on my tenure as a hardcore gamer and, since the prose started flowing from my Crimson Quill, have never once looked back. I’d rather achieve something palpable than embark on another man’s pilgrimage and spend hours taking baby steps towards my next checkpoint beacon and being repeatedly thwarted by my shameful short-term memory and equally pathetic attention span. That said, I can still see the benefits in such otherworldly pursuits and, the moment when control pads are no longer deemed necessary, will be the first in line to jack in to its virtual reality once again.


After Kathryn Bigelow’s grossly underrated sci-fi epic Strange Days supplied us with a brief but tantalizing introduction to future gaming, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ arrived on the scene to elucidate this brave new world further and there appeared few minds more qualified than that of the Canadian techno wizard to take on motherboard duties. His fascination with both the human mind and body made him the ideal candidate to fuse the two and create a console that breaks any conceivable boundaries. eXistenZ does precisely that by affording its subject with the opportunity to temporarily forego their fickle shell and enter the void, completely free of the constraints of their everyday existence. Of course, Cronenberg being Cronenberg, any necessary hardware would need to be venereal in design and resemble something that is screaming out to gobble your fleshy software and I’d say he got it pretty much bang on the money.



“eXistenZ. Written like this. One word. Small ‘E’, capital ‘X’, capital ‘Z’. ‘eXistenZ’. It’s new, it’s from Antenna Research, and it’s here… right now.”

Gone are the days of fierce rivals Sega and Nintendo vying for supremacy and, instead, it’s left to Cortical Systematics and Antenna Research to compete for the all-important market share. The latter appears to be in the ascendancy as it boasts the world’s preeminent game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and our story begins at a freaks and geeks seminar where she is about to unveil her latest creation to a typically fanatical focus group, all chomping at the bit to become the first to engage in the eXistenZ experience. However, while most of her audience consider her a deity of sorts, one particular straggler has a far more anarchic game plan and, after narrowly failing to assassinate the “goddess of the gamepod”, she is forced to flee the premises before any further attempts are made on her life.


“The only way I can tell if everything is OK is to play eXistenZ with somebody friendly. Are you friendly, or are you not?”

This is terrible news for prudish marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law) as he unwittingly becomes her chauffeur and, by doing so, places himself very much in the firing line. After stopping at a motel to regroup, Allegra announces that she must test the damaged gamepod to ensure that her software is still in tact and cannot do so solo. So she is disgusted to learn that, despite his interest in the field of virtual reality gaming, her associate has never been fitted with a bio-port. This is an outlets inserted at the foot of players’ spines, through biotechnological umbilical cords or “UmbyCords” as they are affectionately nicknamed and Pikul seems insistent that the remote risk of infection during the implant procedure outweighs the benefits of expanding his mind. Needless to say, a few bats of the eyelids and it’s time to get a bio-port fitted post-haste.


“Death to the demoness, Allegra Geller.”

Forced to suck it up and overcome his phobia of surgical penetration, the pair head off to the nearest gas station where black market installations are commonplace. Here they meet Gas (Willem Dafoe) and, after realizing that his idol is standing before him, he agrees to fit Pikul up with his very own unsanctioned bio-port. However, before she vacated the seminar, its mortally wounded master of ceremonies imparted one last nugget of wisdom, informing her not to trust anyone and this proves to be more than paranoid rambling as Gas installs Pikul with a defective port which, in turn, leaves her gamepod severely damaged. While this turn of events is most inconvenient for its harried host, for Allegra the ramifications are catastrophic as the only version of her software exists within the compromised metaflesh console and years of blood, sweat and tears is in danger of amounting to nothing.


With the luxury of time no longer on their side, the next stop is Allegra’s mentor, Kiri (Ian Holm), who repairs the damaged pod and provide Pikul with a fresh bio-port. Now that crisis seems to have been averted and despite his disinclination, the pair return to their original game plan and venture inside eXistenZ to further inspect the program. This is what we all came to see and, while a far cry from Grand Theft Auto, the sandbox they enter is jam-packed with both intrigue and incident.


“Free will is obviously not a big factor in this little world of ours.”

Any keen gamers amongst us will be only too aware of the necessity for certain criteria to be met before the narrative can continue and the non-playable characters they encounter have a tendency to space out while awaiting any boxes to be ticked. To Allegra’s delight, Pikul takes to his role enthusiastically and seems more than happy to test out his game face. However, tempering his new-found zeal is her unshakable concern that something is not quite kosher and the only way to banish that fret is to keep on playing and see where that leads them.


“I actually think there’s an element of psychosis involved here.”

eXistenZ leads us a merry dance and Cronenberg’s screenplay is just as meticulous and conniving as you would expect from one with such a wonderfully contorted cortex as he. It twists and turns, blurs the lines between reality and illusion repeatedly, and pulls the rug from beneath our feet whenever it sees fit.


Both leads are excellent, with the “goddess of the gamepod” brimming with verve and passion for her brainchild and her overwrought co-pilot gradually loosening up and discovering his testicles as the story wears on. There is also fine support from the likes of Holm, Dafoe, Christopher Eccleston and the always welcome Sarah Polley to ensure that the game never once crashes, while the pitch-perfect and deliciously cunning conclusion reminds us that it isn’t where we end up but the pilgrimage we undertake to arrive there that is important.


Cronenberg had already hinted at the direction he would be taking with Videodrome way back in 1983 but the world wasn’t ready for eXistenZ at that point and he was forced to bide his while technology played catch-up with his future-proof vision. It’s never less than absorbing for its 97 minute duration and regulars Peter Suschitzky and Howard Shore attach any bells and whistles courtesy of some sublime cinematography and a typically evocative score. However, what provides this with its crack-like addictiveness is that he compacts the same compulsion that gaming provides into a tight, painstakingly plotted, fable that has us hook, line and sinker from the offset and never once looking to press pause. It may not be his finest work but then, where Cronenberg is concerned, it’s all ultimately subjective as he has nary strayed from the path of brilliance in fast-approaching half a century at the top of his game. Now that, my friends, is what we call true bragging rights.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: As has always been the case with Cronenberg, brutal violence is only ever a crafty plot twist away and, when called for, he is more than happy to break out the latex. This includes highlighting the perils a restaurateur faces when failing to attain customer satisfaction courtesy of a dish of unpalatable slop that appears to be riddled with bones. As for the pelt, nothing to see here I’m afraid although, that said, the entire concept is phallic and I’d be the first to jack into Leigh’s bio-port should it pucker up suggestively before me.

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Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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