David Cronenberg is a pretty well known director, his fame and style having been passed onto the younger generation from the term used for the freakish mutants in Rick & Morty. Despite being one of his later films, eXistenZ was the first of his films that I watched and I was surprised by the elements that coincided with LitRPG books, where the uncertainty of reality and being in-game is used as a central mystery that many cyberpunk films have used since. Unlike most of Cronenberg’s earlier films that cast James Woods, Jude Law is given the hero’s role, and for something that was overshadowed by the Matrix, I still think this is the best video game centered film not based off an already existing property.
We follow Ted who is trying out the new game pod with a group of people including the game designer, Allegra Geller. It’s an organic gaming system and controversial enough for the game designer to need security. In Cronenberg’s body-horror style, many of the elements in the game are disturbing, including the weapons and indeed the very gaming system itself, which seems to be alive. The story goes in and out of the games, and games within games, with both the audience and players never truly aware whether they are in the game or not, the story of the game having the characters sent to destroy the people who made the games, but where they don’t control their own actions to do so all of the time.
If that story sounds complicated and confusing, that is one of the appealing things of eXistenZ. It’s one of those films you have to watch more than once, questioning what you thought you knew on your first viewing, who’s in on the plot and who is just playing along for the sake of the game. Despite this, the film is just as immersive as most video games; sucking you in with each discovery and mystery. The uncertainty also gives it a feel similar to films like Inception or the Matrix but whereas the aesthetics of these other films are leather and tech, eXistenZ is one of the few films that can be put under the sci-fi sub-genre of Biopunk, where living biological things are created and used for rebellious means.
The acting and music all do their jobs well to help create a strange and paranoid atmosphere. The tension pulls you in and doesn’t let you go as the visuals take you out of your comfort zone so much that it’s the normal settings which seem to have the scenes and characters you feel you can’t trust the most. The same can be said about how the characters are acting, as you are never sure who is playing the game, playing out their own fantasy or is as passive as the main character is. This until the end whereby there have been so many twists and turns that it’s hard to tell who the main character is himself and the motives behind what he’s doing, let alone if he’s doing it in the real world or not.
I would recommend this film to anyone, not necessarily because I think they would enjoy it, but because I would want to see how they would react to it. It’s very confusing and all over the place with a lot of interesting concepts and the freakish style that David Cronenberg is known for, but just because of that. There were so many films like the Thirteenth Floor and Dark City created in 1999 that use a similar world and genre-bending elements but were overshadowed by the Matrix’s success. I feel eXistenZ was the only one unique enough in its Biopunk style to justify people giving it a go as well, and being a realistic gaming world make it feel way ahead of its time.