Reviewed by: Jason Murphy
With this cry, an assassin pulls out a gun made from bones and gristle, and opens fire on the game designer as she exhibits her newest virtual reality game, eXistenZ. Escaping with Ted Pikul, a security guard, she learns that she has a price placed on her head by “realist extremists,” a fatwa (the screenplay was inspired partially by Salman Rushdie’s similar situation). Being addicted to her own game though, she convinces Pikul to play it with her, to check if it was damaged in the attempt on her life. As they move through the virtual world, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to differentiate between reality and eXistenZ. The resulting film is a very intelligent, interesting one, bordering on brilliance at times; somewhat of a more mature, bizarre companion piece to “The Matrix”.
“eXistenZ” is a very well made film, from almost every aspect. The screenplay is very intelligent, much more mature than most. The directing is solid, and the cinematography is terrific, not so much stunning as subtle, with very expressive colors, capturing the somewhat surreal gamespace in which much of the movie occurs. The production design is amazing, utilizing somewhat familiar locations, and making them generic in the way many of today’s computer games do. There are also no watches, clocks, jewelry, running shoes, TV monitors, or familiar objects to tie us to a certain time and location. The effect, though subtle, is unnerving.
All of the actors, though some are saddled with somewhat ludicrous roles, do a fine job; Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, and Willem Dafoe are especially good. Backing all of this is Howard Shore’s suitably dark and haunting score. “eXistenZ” is, however, very disturbing in many parts, both in its content and in the intelligence with which it probes the effects of the games on human behavior and psyche. The film is very violent and gory, with several shootings, some of which are rationalized by players because “they’re only game characters.” Other areas of the film (such as the bone gun) roam into the grotesque. Those with weak stomachs would be well advised to avoid this movie. A fair, but not gratuitous amount of profanity is also present. While there is no explicit sex or nudity (though there is one scene where Geller and Pikul passionately make out), there is extensive sexual imagery, from the pulsating flesh-like gamepods to the orifice-like bioports in the lower back, which I found more grotesque than offensive. In short, this is not popcorn entertainment, and is a movie with very little mass-marketability.
Somewhat like “Gattaca”, the future presented is not far removed from our own, and parts of it hit scarily close to home with me. It is a very timely warning of the dangers of a person or society becoming too absorbed in a false reality. The violent effects of such a worldview are seen in this movie, and also in real life (the brutal slayings in Littleton are a tragic reminder of this danger). As one who has played quite a few computer games, I can see how easy it is to allow one’s life to be adversely affected by them.
I thought “eXistenZ” was a terrific film, but I hesitate to recommend it. Many will find it too disturbing, and most will probably not even be very entertained by it. If you are interested in films as more than entertainment, as a medium for the presentation of ideas, to provoke thought, you might want to check it out. Otherwise the film, though well made and thought provoking, will probably do little more than disturb most viewers.