Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.15: David Cronenberg's eXistenZ


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the rote plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 40 (C)

eXistenZ is perhaps the most overtly Cronenbergian film since the director’s 80s heyday, and yet it’s one of his weakest. It sounds like a slam-dunk on paper: Cronenberg returns to body horror, assembles a hell of a cast, gets inspiration from the Islamic fundamentalist fatwah on Salmah Rushdie, and takes the Videodrome approach to videogames rather than television. But eXistenZ (I hate typing that out) has more ideas than it can handle and not nearly as much depth as it thinks it has.

Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is an influential videogame designer whose latest work, eXistenZ, could change the whole world. In the world of the film, people plug their game systems into bio-ports on their bodies, and they’re immersed into a virtual world. Allegra is targeted by “realists”, people who believe living inside the videogame world undermines reality. When a realist tries to assassinate her during a press junket, security personnel Ted Pikul (Jude Law) takes control and the two escape to the secluded countryside. Pikul has no bio-port and no experience with games, but Allegra convinces him to have one installed so the two can go into eXistenZ and see if the game has been damaged. But the two begin to lose touch of what’s real and what’s not, and after some time they no longer know who to trust.

eXistenZ’s greatest assets are the Cronenbergian body horror elements- fleshy video-game consoles that plug into the body, some outrageous imagery of characters licking or otherwise lubricating the small bio-port holes in the body, and, in the best scene in the film, a gun made of bones and teeth. The weapon is introduced early in the film as a kind of gun that can be snuck through security, but the scene in question shows a sequence where Law and Leigh arrive at a Chinese restaurant, order the “special” as instructed earlier, and receive a disgusting, fleshy, bad-smelling, noisy meal (slurping sounds a-plenty) that Law’s video-game avatar proceeds to eat (against Law’s will) in order to assemble the bones together into a gun. It’s pretty fantastic.

But aside from the one scene, eXistenZ is frustratingly short on memorable moments. Part of the problem is that there aren’t very many memorable characters- Leigh and Law are good actors both, but they’re not really given much to work with. The fantastic supporting cast (Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Sarah Polley, Don McKellar, Christopher Eccleston) doesn’t fare much better. Dafoe’s character is basically “Willem Dafoe character”. Ian Holm’s character is “eccentric Russian”. Don McKellar is “shady Eastern European”. And so on and so forth. There’s an explanation as to why the characters are so one-dimensional- the entirety of the film’s plot is a videogame- but it doesn’t change that the stakes are low and the characters are unmemorable and there’s no reason to care about what happens to anyone. Cronenberg felt disconnected from the characters in Crash. He didn’t even bother crafting any here.

Cronenberg’s very idea of people accepting videogame systems that connect to their bodies is a good one. The problem: why would anyone let these systems and this game in. It’s not just that the game is revolting- it doesn’t look like it’d be much fun to play, and I don’t mean that in a “this videogame wouldn’t do much for me” way. The events are incredibly talky and exposition heavy (it’s a videogame that assumes you’ve never played a videogame) and light on forward momentum. Cronenberg has plenty of ideas about the limitations of videogames and how being more connected to them than reality can be dangerous, but he doesn’t understand videogames as well as he understood video and television in Videodrome, so eXistenZ can’t help but seem like a pale imitation. The fact that it came out at around the same time period as three superior films with similar visions- The Game, Dark City, and The Matrix- doesn’t help.

The “what’s real and what’s not” material feels pretty tired and often downright leaden- virtual reality feels more real to these people than actual reality and nobody skis or does outdoor activity anymore and as one plays they lose their grip on reality and yadda yadda yadda. It’s a more didactic version of Videodrome that states its thesis over and over again rather than just letting it play out. As for Cronenberg’s ideas of how artists are persecuted by fundamentalists: it’s barely there. By the time the film reaches it’s predictable ending (think Inception’s ending, but not good), that business is secondary to a glib “are we still inside the game?” question that feels like Cronenberg in self-parody. eXistenZ isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s an incredibly frustrating one that wastes an inherently fascinating premise. It’s also the last original screenplay by Cronenberg himself. That’s a damn shame.

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