This month will mark the 20th anniversary of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. While the film may never escape the shadow of the similarly-themed The Matrix, also released in 1999, many consider eXistenZ to be severely overlooked.
The film was far from a success. With an estimated production budget of $31 million, it failed to break the $3 million threshold at the box office, according to imdb.com. It also doesn’t help that eXistenZ was theatrically released in a year which offered hits like Office Space, The Blair Witch Project, Fight Club, just to name a few.
Unfortunately eXistenZ is often compared to The Matrix, due to the similar subject matter and both being theatrically released within months of each other. Miramax likely brought this comparison on themselves, as they used the quote “makes The Matrix look like child’s play” from the San Francisco Chronicle for the film’s release on DVD and Blu-ray. However similar (or dissimilar) the two may be, eXistenZ takes a totally different path than the Wachowski sibling’s blockbuster.
While The Matrix featured groundbreaking special effects for extravagant action sequences in a man versus artificial intelligence spectacle, Cronenberg goes another route as the film opens with a focus group meeting inside a small church to test a new virtual reality game called eXistenZ. The game is created by game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is introduced as the “world’s greatest game designer.”
While Geller is celebrated and noted as a celebrity or “goddess” for her work, she is notably shy and soft spoken upon introduction. Geller quickly sheds the shyness as the film progresses, especially when she is in the game of eXistenZ.
We are then momentarily introduced to Ted Pikul (Jude law), who is working security as a marketing trainee at the event while checking attendees for recording devices. Following a failed assassination attempt, Pikul quickly finds himself as a bodyguard for Geller and the highly sought-after game.
There is a lot happening in the opening sequence. In addition to introducing the main characters, Cronenberg introduces not only the skin-toned organ like game pod device along with the umbilical cord connector, but also the undetectable bone gun which shoots human teeth.
While both these devices have a fair amount of screen time, Allegra’s game pod can be considered a character as well. Not only does Geller have a close bond with the gaming device which has her latest game creation, she also refers to it as her “baby.” The unique-looking device endures damage and even becomes sick with a virus.
Geller relationship with her game system could also be described to that of a drug addict. When hooked to the device, Geller seems to be in a euphoric state. Even at one point, she even risks her own life and disregards Pikul’s warnings when connecting to the infected game pod.
Like Neo in The Matrix, Pikul is taken on a journey into unfamiliar territory. Pikul is drawn into the game to help Geller find out if eXistenZ is working properly following an act of sabotage. At the beginning of the film, Pikul reveals that he does not play games. However, once inside eXistenZ, Pikul reveals a feeling of vulnerability and not acting as himself while inside the game.
Cronenberg dives deep into the world of gaming with eXistenZ, much like he did with the state of television in Videodrome. Focusing within forms of popular entertainment, his intentions may initially come across as innocent and entertaining, but often leads the viewer into something more dark and sinister.
In the case of eXistenZ, Cronenberg uses themes of corporate espionage, escalating violence between gamers and realists along with the notion of gamers becoming out of touch of reality. While these suggested themes may seem far-reached, one could argue that Cronenberg might be on to something.
VR is becoming more and more accessible especially when it comes to smart phones, in which people are becoming more addicted to each day. Love it or hate it, eXistenZ might not be the film everyone wants it to be, but it is cautionary tale that should be viewed.
Fun eXistenZ Facts — Courtesy of IMDB.com
- Two Producers of this movie are Hungarians, so it is not by chance that the X and the Z of the word “eXistenZ” are capitalized, since the letters between them make the Hungarian word “isten”, which means “god”.
- David Cronenberg claimed his inspiration for the film, was the fatwa declared on Author Salman Rushdie, following the publication of his book “The Satanic Verses”.
- The lubricant Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) uses for Pikul’s (Jude Law’s) port is called XE-60, which is only one letter in the alphabet up from WD-40.
- The character of Allegra may be a reference to a minor character of the same name in Samuel R. Delany’s novella “The Star Pit”. In that novella, Allegra is a child prodigy able to telepathically project any type of reality she wishes on anyone around her.