EXISTENZ: A Prophetic Look At The Gaming Industry’s Future
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David Cronenberg’s dystopian, gamer-centric, hodgepodge of body-horror Existenz has aged well thanks to real life events. I had seen the movie when it was first released in '99 but a lot of its weight was washed away by The Matrix that same year. Both played to cyberpunk sensibilities and both questioned reality through advancements in technology. It wasn’t until a recent re-watch that I found new love for what the film’s message had evolved into. Especially its almost prophetic commentary on women and their tribulations working in a mostly male dominated gaming industry.
In Existenz, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Gellar, one of the world’s top VR gaming developers. Leigh embodies the role of Gellar with cool levity. She creates a rock star like character that comes with an evolved, warranted intelligent cockiness, while also hitting the vulnerability notes Leigh has a trademark presence with.
In the world of Existenz, two rival game development companies are competing and doing everything they can to evolve biotech virtual reality systems called “pods.” Societies obsession with virtual reality has caused a fringe group called “realists” to take up arms against both companies by means of terrorist acts. Basically, the realists are a bunch of dicks standing in the way of progress taking pot shots from the sidelines. During a demo of Geller’s game one of the “realist” group members stands to announce “Death to the demoness, Alegra Gellar!” before shooting Gellar with an organic pistol.
I couldn’t help but think about the strength of both Leigh and her character Gellar. In past interviews Leigh has pointed out troubling aspects of working in a mostly male dominated film industry, while Gellar herself is the world’s leading VR game developer coming under scrutiny and vilification for the position she holds. It had to have been an intentional decision to have a frustrated male with an organic “pistol” try to take down Gellar, going so far as to see her and by extension her body of work as something he considered “demonic.”
Sounds like all too familiar territory.
Who could forget the at times laughable but always dangerous fiasco that was Gamergate? Where in August of 2014, notable female game developers and feminist media personalities became the center of a scary troll movement. The group of sexist trolls who remained primarily anonymous took pot shots from the sidelines at three strong women in the industry. What started off as attempted character assassination on social media and Reddit, quickly became all too real and started to produce death threats. This led to more of the group's supporters coming out of the woodwork to harass female gamers both online and in real life.
In the film, Leigh’s character is forced to lay low and even change identities to throw off the group of “realists,” still looking to assassinate Gellar. In its final act, Existenz reveals the chauvinist reality temporarily being a façade, in a scene where Leigh’s character ends up being the one who assassinates a male designer of a VR game called “tranCendenZ.” This is directly followed by Leigh’s character questioning whose game she was really playing.
When focusing on Leigh’s character specifically, Existenz's age has brilliantly revealed some interesting comments on a still prominently misogynistic industry and what that says about the larger picture as a whole. But even that aside, it's a great and vital entry in both David Cronenberg and Jennifer Jason Leigh's filmographies.