It really is incredible how many times David Cronenberg has managed to reconfigure the same themes without their becoming stale. His obsessions of disease, sex, reality, addiction, disfigurement and identity crop up in everything from gloopy monster movies to hard-boiled neo-noir to even Hollywood satire. But in 1999, Cronenberg focused his energies on cyberpunk, a genre that saw a weird mini-explosion that year, and gave us eXistenZ - a hypersexual vision of the future of entertainment.
eXistenZ is a thematic bosom buddy to Videodrome, in which video games have supplanted video tape as the dominant form of entertainment. In the near future, the gaming industry’s marketing seminars may be charmingly low-rent compared to the blockbuster bonanzas of today, but everyone loves games, from scrawny kids to gruff old pensioners. Specifically, they love the games designed by Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the world’s greatest game designer, creator of not just games but whole hyperreal virtual reality game systems that plug directly into players’ spinal columns.
But Allegra is a female game designer, so naturally there’s a cabal of men who want her dead. “Death to the demoness Allegra Geller,” an assassin cries, firing a strange weapon made of flesh and bone. Thus begins a paranoid race to escape and unravel the conspiracy, jumping through different levels of virtual reality - games within games. Like its contemporaries The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor, its alternate-reality plotline leaves it open to all manner of inane deathdream or hallucination theories, but there are far more interesting elements to the film than that kind of bullshit.
Like the sex! There’s so much sex in eXistenZ - no actual sex scenes to speak of, but hot damn, is sex everywhere in this film. There’s so much licking and penetrating and lube and wetness and fingering and squelching and tonguing and just...fleshiness. Where to start?
Allegra Geller’s virtual reality “bio-pods” are pink, organic creations that are uniquely Cronenbergian. They plug into a “bio-port” at the base of the spine using an umbilical cord (that looks like...an umbilical cord); a variety of fleshy nubs on the bio-pod must be twisted and flicked in order to make it quiver and coo. Everything about this thing is coded sexually. Allegra explicitly refers to her pod as a “her”. Games “aren’t much fun” without other players. Certain larger bio-port plugs require lube in order to use them. Ports, it is inferred, can even get hungry for “action,” Allegra explains, as she fingers security guard Ted Pikul (Jude Law)’s virgin port.
It is that virgin port where the really interesting metaphorical stuff comes up. Pikul’s fitted with a bio-port for the first time in eXistenZ, and it’s like the fall of Adam - his loss of game virginity is scary and revelatory all at the same time. His fear of
sex games manifests early on through a “phobia about having my body penetrated,” and a vaginal squickiness about bio-ports “opening right into your body.” But once he’s fitted with his port, Pikul can’t resist fondling his new hole. His first time requires lubrication - “new ports are sometimes a bit tight” - and he’s apprehensive about playing a game with someone as experienced as Allegra, but once he’s in, he’s a convert. He’s eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and everything in his real life seems unreal.
Once he pops, of course, he can’t stop. Oddly-designed bio-pods become alluring jewels of sensory input - the lumpy mini-pod that squeezes inside Pikul’s body like an alarmingly vanishing butt plug, the diseased pod that will surely infect him but that he’s desperate to jack into all the same. Like many Cronenberg films, there’s an addiction narrative here, conflating drugs and sex and technology into an unpleasantly, deliciously reckless sensual joyride. As Pikul and Allegra descend further and further into the game (and their addiction to it), they ask each other if they “feel anything yet,” get concerned about their real bodies, and become increasingly enveloped in the game - at the expense of the “real” world. As a 1999 release, it’s unlikely eXistenZ is commenting on MMO addiction or anything of that sort, but it’s definitely equating our relationship with technology to our relationships with more carnal, physical pleasures.
eXistenZ is a deconstruction of the language and meaning of games, and how we interact with them, on both a technological and personal level. The game eXistenZ itself is the perfect virtual reality, which makes it easier to film, but also makes more tangible the link between game character and player. Pikul, a first-time gamer, doesn’t know how to parse the more gamey aspects of virtual reality, chafing against his relationship with his character. Has he become his character, or is he just a high-tech puppeteer? Sometimes the character will take over and deliver set dialogue to advance the game’s plot; how much agency do Pikul and Geller have in the game world? “Free will,” Pikul remarks, “is obviously not a very big factor in this world of ours” - and by the end of the movie it’s become (somewhat) clear that the whole in-game story, generated by its players, has been a piece of anti-game propaganda. There’s a real resistance there to the game reality supplanting real reality.
Ultimately, of course, realism vs fantasy is the central load-bearing pillar of eXistenZ. The “realist underground” isn’t too pleased with gaming’s newfound popularity, and seeks to destroy it and its creators. It’s noted, when visiting a hidden ski-lodge base, that nobody physically skis anymore, just plays games - it’s a sign of the times, as is the appearance of mutated amphibians, generated by the biological technology used to build bio-pods. Eventually the characters emerge into the "real" real world, but the anti-game sentiment remains the same.
In this way, Cronenberg also links gaming to religion. The film’s anti-game activists have the air of anti-abortionists or anti-stem-cell researchers, reacting violently to anyone who dares “play God” by creating their own reality in which to live. Willem Dafoe’s character talks briefly of a fictitious game entitled ArtGod - “thou, the player, art God.” As he’s penetrating Jude Law’s body with a huge phallic stud gun, he speaks of “God the artist,” “God the mechanic” - God as a person, painting a new world inside of a machine. His character ends up revealed as an anti-game revolutionary, which makes sense: it’s always the reactionaries that talk about “playing God.” Even the film’s title - the “isten” between its X and Z is Hungarian for “God” - is a pun jabbing at religious ideas.
Early on in the film, Allegra and Pikul grab burgers from a fast-food joint called “Perky Pat’s” - a reference to the drug-induced, opiate-of-the-masses alternate reality inhabited by characters in several of Philip K. Dick’s novels. Is gaming a mere salve we apply to the gaping sore of reality? Is the act of creating virtual worlds an act of playing God? Is art? Do we get the same psychological jollies from games that we do from sex or drugs? Are we, in fact, still in the game? I don’t know the answers to these questions. But David Cronenberg asked them, and made the world of cinema richer for doing so.