PSA – I recently realized that the optimal format for reading my posts is NOT in a full-screen browser. If you minimize the window slightly, the image on the left is reduced so it doesn’t take up half of the page, and it also reveals the entire image. My browser is never full-screen, so I hadn’t realized this until a few days back. Enjoy!
David Cronenberg – quite likely the best director to come out of Canada. Known for popularizing the genre of ‘body horror’ (briefly defined as the exploration of people’s fears of bodily transformation/transfiguration or infection), his well-known films include Scanners, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, and Crash. Having viewed Dead Ringers earlier this week, I’d like to shine the light on a lesser celebrated Cronenberg film – eXistenZ (a personal favorite of mine).
eXistenZ, released 3 years after Crash in 1999, is labelled (by Wikipedia, at least) as a ‘science fiction body horror film.’ Technology is key to this science fiction designation, as the entire film revolves around a virtual reality video game. However, a filmic sub-text is the concept of the “artist on the run.” Allegra Geller (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), plays a renowned game designer who is working for Antenna Research, one of two game companies competing for the next best virtual reality experience. Instead of electronic game consoles, however, these games run through “game pods,” flesh-like game controller look-alike devices that have organs of their own, which attach to “bio-ports,” essentially human electrical outlets that are inserted at the base of the spine. Connecting the game pod to the bio-port involves biotech umbilical cords, a point that is sexualized multiple times through the film. Ending this brief background, there is also a war between these video game companies and their fans against the ‘realists,’ a faction of people fighting against these games that deform reality.
Quickly ending any arguments that Cronenberg, with the character of Allegra Geller, created this “artist on the run” figure to represent his own feelings after the controversy surrounding Crash, it should be pointed out that the script for eXistenZ was written before the release of Crash. So, unless Cronenberg’s sixth sense is highly underrated, Allegra Geller is not an embodiment of Cronenberg’s personal experiences or feelings of isolation.
In terms of pure gross-out factor, eXistenZ is actually pretty tame, at least compared to other Cronenberg films. After getting accustomed to spinal holes and strange flesh game consoles, it’s all cake and sunshine. However, perhaps more important than the gross-out factor, I would argue that it is instead the lack of logic that freaks the audience out the most. Cronenberg is a surrealist – able to transform illogical and, to most spectators, ridiculous concepts into realistic visions. The entire idea of the bio-port, a merging of the body and technology, is pushing the boundaries of what your average viewer is willing to accept. Cronenberg is pushing these “lines” that people set up in their own psyche – what they are willing to talk about in a “legitimate discussion” compared to what is “over the line” and unrealistic. By forcing the audience to question their own philosophical boundaries, he is putting them in an incredibly uncomfortable situation.
Perhaps the worst part of this questioning of one’s own philosophical/moral boundaries is that Cronenberg doesn’t clearly express his personal opinion on the matter. Though he makes clear that he believes the advancement of media and technology is going to cause a change in the human body, he noticeably declines taking a side – in this case, of the video game designers or the realists. Throughout the film, there are hints of veiled positive or negative connotations, and sometimes both at once! By remaining ambivalent, Cronenberg puts the spectator in a precarious situation. Both uncomfortable and left to make a decision for oneself, the viewer is abandoned.
This biotech video game evokes the idea of the “new flesh.” These game pods, plugged into the bio-port by umbilical cord, represent the game player being born again into a new world. Taking virtual reality to an entirely new level, Cronenberg explores the idea of multiple planes of (ir)reality. Within the film, debates of how much time has passed “in the real world,” whether you could live an entire life within the video game, and the thought of injuries passing on from your video game self to your real self, all question the boundaries of life as is currently defined. How many “lives” could you live (within your one actual life) through playing these intensely real video games? eXistenZ is a film that is literally about life itself, about blurring the lines of existence. At the conclusion of the movie, we realize that everything up to this point was part of the game, and are left uncertain whether the game has even ended.
Sound familiar anyone? Remember how the world though Inception was a mind-fuck? Well, it owes its base concepts to eXistenZ. And, in my opinion, I think Cronenberg does it better. Sure, Jude Law is no Leonardo DiCaprio, but I’ll take eXistenZ over Inception any day.