I remember being quite taken by David Cronenberg’s virtual reality head trip when I first saw it in theaters in 1999. How does eXistenZ hold up 13 years after it envisioned an increasingly immersive video gaming world? Seen today, recently reissued on Blu-ray by Echo Bridge Entertainment, it seems too self-conscious and a bit over-the-top in its send-up of gaming culture. Not helping matters much, the heavily stylized performances (from a solid cast) ring somewhat irritatingly false. It remains an interesting curiosity, however, and one that I’m grateful to see in high definition.
Cronenberg imagined a gaming system so immersive that its players basically were one with the game. The console is an almost alarmingly organic-looking fleshy pod. Players literally plug in via an anus-like port at the base of their spine. This, of course, predated Xbox Kinect and its “You are the controller” slogan by quite a few years. In this sense, it’s very interesting to view eXistenZ as a somewhat prescient time capsule piece. The gameplay depicted in the film is so realistic, players become lost within it, disconnected from their own real lives.
Without revealing the plot twists that keep the viewer guessing until the very end, eXistenZ can be considered a shaggy dog story, more or less. A group of volunteers are selected at a focus group to try out the new game, eXistenZ. The game’s designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), leads the group. Allegra is accosted by a would-be assassin who sneaks an undetectable flesh-and-bone pistol into the testing area. She's shot and injured, but worse to her is the damage sustained by her game console (which improbably, but convenient for storytelling purposes, contains the only hard copy of eXistenZ). She needs a non-hostile co-player to test the game with and selects security guard Ted Pikul (Jude Law). Ted hasn’t had a bioport installed in his back yet, so off the pair go to find someone who can take care of this. That job goes ends up going to a shady gas station attendant played by Willem Dafoe.
If this sounds like a promising set-up, it is. eXistenZ is quite entertaining for the most part, but it just doesn’t add up to enough in the end to make it truly recommendable. The game itself, as depicted in the film, is a convoluted mess that simply isn’t representative of the complex stories that the best modern games are constructed around. It’s basically a bunch of nonsense presented as a revolutionary gaming experience. Cronenberg seems, if anything, disdainful of (and disgusted by) the obsessions of gamers. There’s no sense of wonderment evident as the gamers work their way through the game. The sexual elements (including Ted rimming Allegra’s lubed up bioport) come off more like sight gags than anything else. If you’ve ever finished a movie and thought, “Man, that would’ve made a great Twilight Zone episode,” you might feel the same as the credits roll for eXistenZ. There are good ideas here, but not developed quite enough to support a feature length film.
eXistenZ receives a passable high definition presentation. Framed at 1.78:1, the best thing about the image is its reasonable sharpness. The worst thing is the frequent specs that pop up throughout. The source print wasn’t very clean when the transfer was made. Colors are a bit tepid, but that seems to be the way the film was shot. Overall this is fine for a budget-priced release. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is honestly not that different for the 2.0 DTS-HD that is also an option. Some ambiance and the score (by Howard Shore) are expanded to the rear channels, but the sound design is simple either way.
Special features are limited to a trio of interviews. The most substantial is with the visual effects supervisor Jim Isaac, which runs for about 27 minutes. There’s also a 14-minute piece with Jude Law and six minutes with Willem Dafoe. They’re nice to have, but not essential by any means. Look for eXistenZ at a bargain price but don’t expect to be wowed by it in any department.