Like any great Cronenberg joint, 1999's Existenz* is a thematically layered affair, rich with symbolism and positively lousy with sexual innuendos (for more on that, check out our own Andrew Todd's excellent post on the matter). It features a healthy amount of gore (check out that Chinese Waiter's exploding head!), effective-- and typically chilly-- performances from its two leads (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law), and the same kind of biomechanical flourishes that made Videodrome so memorable. It's one of his most "mainstream" efforts; in terms of accessibility, Existenz is much closer to The Fly than Naked Lunch. On paper, Existenz sounds like it'd be one of Cronenberg's most beloved films.
It is not one of Cronenberg's most beloved films.
Indeed, experience tells me that I'm in the minority when it comes to loving Existenz. I don't know anyone who out-and-out hates the film, to be sure, but most Cronenberg enthusiasts I've spoken with seem to consider it one of the director's minor efforts, something much more in league with Spider than, say, Videodrome. Poppycock, horsefeathers, and hogwash, says I: Existenz is one of Cronenberg's best. In fact, I'll go one step further: Existenz is my favorite Cronenberg film.
It's not his best, his most interesting, or his most memorable, no-- but it's my favorite. If I'm invited to watch any Cronenberg film of my choosing, nine times out of ten it's going to be this one**. Existenz strikes the perfect balance between some of the director's all-time favorite themes (the notion of free will, the nature of reality, the corruption of flesh in the search for enlightenment) and it couches them in the sort of hypnotic, fever-dream tone that's always been right up my alley. It's sexy and thought-provoking and creepy and it's got Willem Dafoe doing things with his face that'll make your fucking skin crawl. What's not to love?
Well, I've heard some people say they feel like Existenz is a bit of a retread, glossing over some of the same themes and gags that Cronenberg used elsewhere (and, goes the implication, to greater effect). To an extent, I suppose that's true, but if we're going to start tossing that particular criticism around, we're going to have to level it against a wide swath of the Cronenberg filmography. One might as well complain about Tarantino's love of loquacious criminals, the Coen Brothers' repeated trips to the "screwball noir" well, or Kubrick's preoccupation with obsession: yes, there's some overlap here, but you're in Cronenberg country-- what exactly did you expect?
And besides, that's not really what Existenz is after. Taken at face value, the film's about Allegra (Leigh), a renowned game designer who's forced to go on the run (or is she?) following a violent outburst that occurs during the debut of her latest game. While evading her pursuers, she introduces her bodyguard, Pikul (Law), to the elaborate virtual reality gaming experiences she's built her career on. They go deeper and deeper into the game, until-- by the end of the film-- we're not sure what's real and what isn't anymore***.
But as is usually the case with Cronenberg, there's a lot more going on under the hood: the ideas of reality and free will and identity and destiny are all examined, but this time we're looking at them through the prism of gaming (in case it's not obvious, the in-movie game Allegra's designed is called "eXistenZ"). What does it mean to be "in control" of one's "character"? Is the Creator/God, as the film suggests, nothing more than a "mechanic"? What's really real? In one scene, Pikul gives voice to the film's central conceit, saying:
We're both stumbling around together in this unformed world, whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don't understand.
Cronenberg's not breaking any new ground here, but it's all tied together effectively, and if you can't be bothered to deconstruct the wordplay and symbolism happening onscreen, there's plenty to enjoy at the surface level: the hilariously accurate clues that our characters are in a video game reality (Pikul suggests that he and Allegra stop at a "country gas station", and the camera cuts to the two pulling into the parking lot of a building labeled "COUNTRY GAS STATION", just like it would be in a game), the freaky performances turned in by the film's supporting cast (Dafoe is a standout, but Oscar Hsu's Chinese Waiter will always be my favorite), the nightmarish practical effects used to bring the film's gore and "pod" technology to life.
At this point, I've seen Existenz enough times to know it beat for beat, but I never tire of it: from scene to scene, there's always something new and weird happening, some weird new character to savor or bit of freaky-ass technology to ogle. And of course, this being a Cronenberg film, there's always a lot to think about when the credits roll.
Existenz is currently available on Netflix Instant. I can't recommend watching (or rewatching) it enough.
* = For the sake of my own sanity, I refuse to repeatedly type out the film's actual title, eXistenZ.
** = The other times, it's going to be Videodrome, Crash, or A History Of Violence.
*** = I'm pretty certain the final scene brings every character back into the "real" world-- that Allegra and Pikul are both violent "Realists" who take a stand against gaming-- but of course Hsu's final line calls that into question.