Like Emir Kusturica's Black Cat White Cat (1998), David Cronenberg's eXistenZ provides a lively, often comic tour through the best-known motifs and obsessions of its maker.
Human body parts fuse with guns and transporter machines of various kinds, as in Videodrome (1982) and The Fly (1986). Characters blissfully wrapped up in fantasy collide with hard-nosed realists out to destroy illusion, as in M. Butterfly (1993). Solitude gives away to deeply perverse relationships, as in Crash (1996).
Cronenberg always balances the surreal and anarchistic elements of his work with a careful attention to craft and logic. It is this combination of the passionate and the cerebral which makes him such a great artist – and eXistenZ one of his most sheerly pleasurable films.
It is not often recognised what a skilful scriptwriter Cronenberg is. Here, he marries a superb plot – which becomes denser and creepier as it builds – to a deeply poetic sense of bodies and minds in flux.
Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is introduced as the shy but brilliant inventor of a new, interactive game that generates many of its key elements from the memory and psyche of those playing it. While tripping with a select team of collaborators, Allegra becomes quickly aware that she is being hunted by a subversive, anti-techno sect – and that Ted (Jude Law), a security guard, may be the only companion she can trust.
Philosophically, Cronenberg is a man for all seasons. He seamlessly blends the latest enquiries into virtual identity and fluid sexuality with a previous generation's taste for existentialism and its burning question of how to act authentically in the world.
Even more broadly and universally, Cronenberg loves to explore the primal role of imagination or make-believe – and the potential of these activities to not merely express but actively transform our inner selves.
For Cronenberg, the technology we must constantly confront – alienating and liberating in equal measure – is as old as time itself. Everything to do with words and images, every system that imprints itself on our psyches – whether an old-fashioned novel or a new-fangled video game – turns us inside out, as is argued in Darren Tofts' book Memory Trade.
Many banal, mediocre sci-fi films have already asked 'what is reality?' – mainly for the sake of a few, cheap shocks. What raises Cronenberg's movie above such parlour games is the extent to which every aspect of the style and plot mirrors this philosophical investigation.
Like Abel Ferrara's New Rose Hotel (1998), eXistenZ is a film of radical doubt. The uncertainty and instability that riddle every character and every situation eventually affect the movie itself.
Such films as Jacob's Ladder (1990) and The Sixth Sense (1999) force us to re-examine their plots from a perspective opened up at the very end. Cronenberg goes much further: we find ourselves puzzling over not only the reality-status of events but the very way they are being presented: niggling, unsettling details of acting, scripting, editing and camera work.
With scarcely a piece of computer hardware in sight, eXistenZ gives us a brilliant, playful meditation on a world increasingly absorbed by interactive, multi-media possibilities.
Far from being a prophet either heralding or decrying a new technological age, Cronenberg wisely takes us back through the fundamentals of logic, imagination and poetic insight. It is a timely and exciting lesson.
MORE Cronenberg: Naked Lunch
© Adrian Martin October 1999