Directors discussing human capacity for sex and violence are a dime a dozen. For more than 50 years, David Cronenberg has dissected it — often quite literally, creating weapons made of human bone or shoving handguns into tremulous, vaginal stomach slits. Of course, such unpredictably invasive anatomical moments are just one part of Cronenberg’s aggressive tradition. Even in his less fantastical work, he rarely separates sex from violence, poking and prodding to seek potentially perilous similarities in the chemical reactions caused by those acts. In honor of Cronenberg’s films, and his 80th birthday, Midwest Film Journal presents a monthlong retrospective on his work: Ew, David!
eXistenZ arrived in theaters at a strange time — a few weeks after The Matrix on the Friday following the Columbine High School massacre. The film is eerily similar to The Matrix, as it revolves around characters questioning reality as they dive into a virtual universe. And like the media did after the Columbine shooting, its characters blame video games for detaching people from real life, thus enabling them to more easily commit violence.
eXistenZ emerges as a prime vintage David Cronenberg film — fleshy, timely and full of provocative ideas about our darkest desires and dreams of transformation. Just as The Fly explored bodily horror amid the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, eXistenZ confronted our fears of the ways in which technology would mold our minds before the Y2K millennium. As we started relying more on technology in the 1990s, the notion of a computer glitch connected to the formatting of calendar data in the 2000s led to a scare that had people stocking up on food, water and weapons. eXistenZ effectively taps into that fear. It’s much less thrilling and more meandering than The Matrix, but it’s still a fun and enlightening ride.
The film opens with an assassination attempt on virtual-reality game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) — a setup reportedly inspired by the fatwa issued against author Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses, in which he ironically delves into magical realism much like Allegra does.
When we meet her, Allegra is on the verge of unveiling her latest and greatest work — the titular game that provides a level of immersion people haven’t experienced before. Just as characters jack into the titular world of The Matrix through a plug in the back of their heads, users log into eXistenZ through surgically installed bio-ports. Of course, Cronenberg being Cronenberg, the bio-ports are much more erotic. Located on the lower back, they connect to a soft, flesh-colored game controller that looks like a sex toy. The controller writhes and vibrates whenever characters plug its umbilical-like cord into their bio-ports. Ew, David!
This wouldn’t be a Cronenberg movie if he didn’t question the sexual nature of everything. If not overtly sexual, gaming is definitely intimate, as it puts players in vulnerable positions and forces them to tap into primal instincts. The danger lies in players potentially losing themselves in the “reality” of the game.
The fear of this possibility takes hold of Allegra’s unspoken bodyguard Ted Pikul (Jude Law). When eXistenZ gets its hooks in him, he says, “I’m feeling disconnected from my real life. I’m losing touch with the texture of it.”
In addition to having difficulty distinguishing the game from reality, Ted begins to have what Allegra calls “gamer urges,” including a thirst for blood.
Gamer urges were considered a top threat in the ’90s. In the wake of the Columbine shooting, the killers’ gaming history was often questioned, especially because they were known to have enjoyed first-person shooter games like Doom and Quake. Another chilling connection between this and eXistenZ is the fact that one of the killers, Dylan Klebold, wrote in a journal he entitled “A Virtual Book: EXISTENCES.” He frequently wrote about playing God, like Allegra does as a game designer. Eric literally went in her direction, creating his own levels within the game Doom, which you can still find online.
You could say Dylan and Eric forever infected the world of gaming. eXistenZ goes literal with this idea, portraying its gooey game devices as living organisms susceptible to viruses. Games can crash, and players can suffer bodily harm. At one point, Allegra grows aroused at the thought of plugging into a bruised game system, as if she were having sex without a condom. Of course, a computer virus was a terrifyingly timely threat as audiences faced the Y2K bug scare.
eXistenZ ends with a shocking act of violence and a condemnation of virtual reality. As we sit here in cyberspace, the final line of dialogue, “Are we still in the game?,” is even more relevant and haunting now than it was in 1999. You can always count on Cronenberg to raise questions that make our skin crawl long after the end credits roll.