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The Test of Time: eXistenZ (1999)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY DAVID CRONENBERG

STARRING JENNIFER JASON LEIGH, JUDE LAW, WILLEM DAFOE, IAN HOLM, CALLUM KEITH RENNIE

Here’s a bit of a toughie for you boils and ghouls: what’s your all-time favorite David Cronenberg flick? Okay now, a bit tougher: what’s your favorite post-FLY Cronenberg joint?

Me? I’ll forever ride with VIDEODROME and DEAD RINGERS, respectively, but there are so many minor Cronenberg classics that tend to get overshadowed by his landmark titles like THE BROOD, SCANNERS, NAKED LUNCH and even by his latter career titles with A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, EASTERN PROMISES, etc., that it’s a bit difficult to keep track of Cronenberg’s eclectic genre career. However, the most caring of Cronenberg connoisseurs know full well that his 1999 brain-melting biotechnological sci-fi/horror smorgasbord EXISTZENZ (or eXistenZ) easily ranks among his critical best of the last 20 years. In fact, it’s Cronenberg’s first film since the aforesaid VIDEODROME that he solely penned the screenplay for, which in a weirdly indirect way, shares an umbilicus with EXISTENZ – movie that also pushes the limits of the fusion point between grotesque body horror and arresting technological science fiction.

But you know the deal. Anytime a sci-fi flick relies so heavily on its tech, it’s inevitably susceptible to severe senescence. The filmic technology of 2019 has evolved exponentially from where it was in 1999, so to view EXISTENZ with today’s keenly spoiled eye just may alter the optics a bit. As always, we’re fixing to get to the bottom of this bastard when we officially examine how EXISTENZ fares against its 20-year Test of Time below!

THE STORY: Reportedly inspired by the fatwa declared on author Salman Rushdie for his banned polemic novel The Satanic Verses, EXISTENZ boasts one giant rug-pulling premise. First of all, eXistenZ connotes two things. By capitalizing the X and Z, the word left in between those two letters is “isten,” which is Hungarian for God. Two of the movies producers are Hungarian, so this is likely no coincidence at all. Secondly, eXistenZ refers to a brand new virtual reality gaming system in the future, designed by the preeminent gamer in the land, Allegra Geller (the ever fearless Jennifer Jason Leigh). As the film begins, Allegra introduces her revolutionary new game eXistenZ to a marketing focus group. The game comes equipped with fleshy gaming consoles called “pods” that resemble shell-less abalone that twitchily undulate in the lap of its users, extending “UmbyCords” into human bio-ports that are surgically drilled into players’ spines. Shite’s bizarre beyond belief, even defying description at times. At any rate, Allegra works for a gaming corporation called Antenna, the rival of which, Cortical Systems, is hell-bent on confiscating eXistenZ for their own gain.

Allegra teams up with a marketer named Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and they visit a gas station, where a black marketer aptly named Gas (the great but underutilized Willem Dafoe) drills a porthole in Pikul’s spine. Allegra and Pikul enter eXistenZ, a lifelike VR world of grunginess and grotesquery, assuming new identities inside the game-scape along the way. They begin to meet sordid characters inside the game that advance the storyline and lead to new discoveries in the game, such as a gun made of organic material (bone and teeth) from a waiter at a Chinese restaurant. Not to get too far into the weeds of such a densely thicketed plot, but when Allegra gets locked out of her gaming pod with only one copy of eXistenZ locked inside, a mad scramble ensues to ensure the game is not only preserved, but maintained in the rights hands, away from the rivaling Cortical Systems led by Viri Vinokur (Ian Holm) as well as the Resistors, anti-gaming revolutionaries who want to keep reality as we know it intact, led by Hugo Carlaw (Callum Keith Rennie). The plot is knotty and decidedly duplicitous, so let’s focus less on it transpires than how wildly weird and brain-teasingly bizarre the whole experience of the film is instead. After-all, eXistenZ engenders what Cronenberg does best: challenge our eyes with horror and open our minds with honor!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: To be honest, I expected to find far less durability in the foundation of EXISTENZ than I did when revisiting the film the other day (it’s currently on Hulu if interested). For whatever reason, I just assumed that a movie so reliant on special effects to show its age, but Cronenberg is too smart to allow that to happen. By designing a new form of technology that melds the organic with the inorganic – the biological with the technological – the result ends up synthesizing something altogether new. It’s hard for the tech to shows its age when its inherently linked to the aging of human flesh itself, which, given the limited scope of the story timeline, is fairly curbed in the film. The gory, gooey, gyrating gaming pods have not lost an iota of their icky luster precisely because they’re a carbon-based, biotech hybrid intrinsically linked to the living. This isn’t goddamn Vibranium we’re talking about, the physiological tech of eXistenZ is prevents it from growing old.

Corresponding with such breathtaking and death-making tech is the resplendent gore Cronenberg spurts throughout the film. I suppose it starts with the crusty, anus-like bio-port Cronenberg designs as a raw, chapped orifice that players lewdly stick their fingers inside. It’s hard to ignore the sexual nature of these ports and the gory ingress and egress we see them used for, once again reinforcing Cronenberg’s lifelong fascination with grafting the human body with its technologically created counterparts. eXistenZ is wildly imaginative from frame one, with its lofty ideas only exceeded by its diametrically opposed low-tech execution. One prime example of this is the aforesaid Chinese restaurant scene. After ordering an unappetizing special, Pikul constructs an organic gun made from calcified bone, using teeth as bullets. The first shot grazes the waiter’s cheek with an explosion of red goop. When the waiter pulls a large cleaver and swipes the blade at Pikul’s gun, Allegra throws a hot bowl of soup in his face, allowing Pikul to fire another toothy round in the waiter’s face. This time however, when we see his head fall to the counter, a revolting layer of dangling flesh, skeletal viscera and gory bone fragments is all that remains. If that’s not gnarly enough, leave to the scrounging pooch to chomp the viscid remains of the gun for good measure.

Example after gory example could be given to prove that, among its lasting attributes, Cronenberg’s no-punch-pulling onslaught remains as strong as ever. How about the scene in which Allegra – whose name means joyful or lively in Italian – has her UmbyCord flayed by Pikul as a means of severing the diseased pod. The gruesome geyser that bursts out of the cord is messier than a goddamn ER triage unit. Pikul clamps and squeezes on the squishy cord until more gore erupts from the opening, and if that wasn’t gnarly enough, their so-called contact Yevgeny Nourish (Don McKellar) torches the spore-ridden pod with a flamethrower. Shite’s insane! So too is the sequence in which Allegra secretly knows that Pikul is acting as a mole inside of eXistenZ, and before he has a chance to blow up her infected port, she turns the tables and detonates his disinfecting device, causing a forceful exit wound akin to that of a grenade right out of his lower back. The abrupt violence holds up in its own right, but the sequence is made all the more memorable by the sneaky plot twist the entire movie hinges on.

And frankly, last but not least, it is that very grand head-spinning yank Cronenberg subjects all too in the end, revealing the entirety of what we had just witnessed for 90 odd minutes was, indeed, all just a game narrative. Cronenberg pulls back to reveal every character in the film to be but a VR-game player equipped with standard headgear and digital technology, as each play alongside one another in the same presentation room. It’s such a brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed sleight of hand, all culminating in this one brain-busting gotcha moment, that it actually works just as well upon repeat viewings. So often times a movie dependent on a twist finale sacrifices the shock and awe of the first viewing for lack of replay value, but eXistenZ works just as well the second time you see it as it does the first, partly because the mystery is so well shrouded, and partly because Cronenberg keeps us so thoroughly engaged until the final reveal is presented. Moreover, been the narrative knot, it’s themes of VR and the ever increasing marriage of humanity and technology have only gotten more salient and poignant since 1999. Pay attention to the final scene as well, you’ll notice the game players using devices that are presciently similar to smart phones and tablets. As is often the case, with eXistenZ, Cronenberg was ahead of his time in many ways, not a prisoner of it.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Surprisingly, not much about eXistenZ blows too hard today! Part of that is due to the film being only 20 years old, but like we said above, it has more to do with Cronenberg’s imaginative production design that preserves the fleshy, low-fi tech from aging too badly. It’s so strange, flesh should show signs of aging, but because Cronenberg welds the flesh so deftly with the technological gaming gadgetry, very little signs can be found at all. I do think the early portion of Jude Law’s performance is a bit too hammy and indicative he may have ulterior motives, but even he grows stronger as the film unspools. We could bemoan the lack of Willem Dafoe onscreen, but now we’re just splitting hairs at this point.

THE VERDICT: For a 20 year old sci-fi horror flick so highly reliant on special effects, it’s a bit of pleasant surprise to report that, so far, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ has held up beautifully. It starts with the inviolable premise and how, even after seeing it and knowing what will happen, still manages to shock an audience with its optimal execution. It extends to the peerless oddity of Cronenberg’s mind and how he envisions the fusion of man and machine, which in turn is ameliorated by the brusque use of gruesome violence to drive the points home. F*ck a Test of Time, eXistenZ is still far ahead of its time!

STREAM EXISTENZ HERE

GET EXISTENZ ON DVD HERE

GET EXISTENZ ON BLU-RAY HERE

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