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Creepy and squishy

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written and directed by David Cronenberg

With Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe

With multiplexes awash in derivative, boring, third-generation-copy films, anything that displays just a spark of originality feels, by contrast, wildly and completely fresh. eXistenZ (last syllable stressed) displays more than just such a spark in creation of its startlingly unique world, and as a result it’s far more interesting and entertaining than it has any right to be, especially for a film which has such a cliched and uninspired story.

Ostensibly inspired by the real-life story of Salman Rushdie (an artist on the run from a religious cult), eXistenZ starts with a bungled assassination of game designer Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is forced on the run with her bodyguard, Ted Pikul (Jude Law, from Gattaca, making quite a career in retrofuturistic thrillers). At first, Allegra and Ted have to escape from their pursuers physically; then, they’re forced to look for refuge and seek the answers directly in eXistenZ, the latest game world created by Allegra.

Written and directed by the Canadian master of gross-out, David Cronenberg (Crash, Dead Ringers, The Fly), eXistenZ is set in the vaguely futuristic world where the cities are abandoned, mutated two-headed lizards roam, and most hardware is organic. Cronenberg is mum on what really made the world the way it is, but he’s certainly having fun creating it, replete with pink squishy things functioning as phones and even the game stations (Nintendo for the next millennium?) being actual living creatures. To play a game, you take a game pod, which is a funny-looking pink squishy thingamabob with a long umbilical cord attached, and plug this cord directly into your spine. Yum.

It’s all very creepy and atmospheric, and Cronenberg’s vision is all aces. It’s not very consistent (if they have normal cars and guns in this world, why do they have to breed their phones?!), but it’s certainly different from everything else out there. The nightmarish sequence of future meat-processing plants is a blast, with its conveyor belt carrying literally dozens of different kinds of gross mutated amphibians. There’s blood and guts and grossness aplenty, and yet it’s wildly funny, mostly because of an unexpected combination of completely deadpan attitude and way over-the-top outrageousness of the creature design, art direction, and the overall ambience. A lot of the special effects budget clearly went towards the construction of all these squishy things, and they look hilariously realistic.

And there’s more to the world of eXistenZ, from the intentionally improbable accents of the supporting cast, to the amusing parallel between plugging into the game pod and sex, to the most creative invention: the assassins use guns that are made out of real bones and gristle, using human teeth as bullets.

It’s all wildly inventive and outrageous and exciting, no doubt about that. But, despite all that, eXistenZ is a poor film, hovering somewhere between obvious and ludicrous. For all the creative energy that went into the creation of the world, it seems that nothing was left for the actual story -- and if this sounds like a typical Hollywood dumb movie, so be it. For all of its pedigree (a respected iconoclastic independent director/screenwriter, a stellar cast), eXistenZ is, to put it simply, dumb.

The story -- Allegra and Ted hop from one level of virtual reality to another by hooking up to the game pod -- was done before, and was done better, most notably in Total Recall. The twists are few, come far apart, and are utterly obvious. As a matter of fact, most of eXistenZ is obvious, and crushingly so, with about a third of the whole running time devoted to utterly unnecessary exposition. An example (non-verbatim, of course):

(Ted extracts a projectile from Allegra’s shoulder. Close-up on their faces, with beads of glamorously-lit sweat trickling down.)

Ted: Look! You were shot with a human tooth!

Allegra: Wow! Human tooth indeed!

Ted: Yeah! Human tooth!

(Cut to Ted holding a human tooth in his hand).

That’s three lines of dialogue and one image, which could have been easily reduced to one image, and the resulting scene would have worked.

By the time Ted was solemnly intoning the third line, I was wondering if Cronenberg would ever get around to actually showing us what they’re talking about. Rarely have I felt so much condescension on the filmmaker’s part; there’s really no need to explain things that are patently obvious.

eXistenZ is utterly simplistic on its basic level, ending up being a disappointingly shallow and preachy film. By the end, with the characters nearly yelling at each other that video game violence results in real world violence, I felt suckered into watching something that bland. There’s not much actually happening in the film, and the game, which the characters are playing for the bulk of the running time, is of that “talk to everyone you see and then do what they tell you” variety. Playing such a game is boring; watching someone playing such a game is even worse. It’s only because the world of eXistenZ is so inventive that the film is actually watchable.