Like It's 1999: A Cerebral Dive Into eXistenZ

Teetering on the brink of the 21st Century, popular media in the late '90s became a foreshadowing of the world we know today: one that is defined by and dependent on cyber culture.  The Matrix is commonly used as an example of this, but the lesser known 1999 David Cronenberg film eXistenZ has plenty of takeaways as well.  Like most science fiction, eXistenZ reflects the sentiments of its time, displaying fears regarding burgeoning new technologies and ultimately delving into loftier philosophical concepts in the process.  

To understand eXistenZ’s value is to understand the decade it was born.  Video games like 1992’s Mortal Kombat ignited a heated debate regarding the repercussions of playing violent video games.  Further outrage was caused by the increasingly realistic violence and crime in 1997’s Grand Theft Auto, where players are able to explore the virtual realm in a non-linear “sandbox” style of game play.  Meanwhile, the internet was slowly but surely working its way into every household for better or worse, setting itself up to be one of the most significant staples of modern life.  The late-90s were also a time of paranoia for computers to an extent we’d never seen before: the Y2K Scare caused widespread panic, with countless people believing their computers would shut down at midnight on December 31st, 1999.

Bookending a century where technology became both an essential friend and potential foe, it’s no coincidence that eXistenZ presents the subject matter with both  awe and fear.  At the beginning of the film, Ted Pikul (Jude Law) is a novice to virtual reality gaming, but his duty to protect revered game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) forces him to take a nosedive into that world.  He is pulled into Allegra’s game with great resistance, flinching at the thought of receiving a “bioport” for the game through his lower spine, and worrying about the state of his physical body while he is inside the game.  In many ways, Ted represents the everyman in 1999 when he first enters the game:  someone hesitantly fascinated by the potential of cyberspace.  The further he is immersed in the game, however, his hesitation dwindles, succumbing to his “game urges” to say incendiary things and even murder—to the point where his physical body starts to feel unreal.  He ultimately reaches the place we’re at 20 years later as a society:  comfortable with the concept of online identities and completely submerged in the false realities of gaming.

As the film progresses, we learn the game consoles can be “infected,” representing 1999’s fear of Y2K, as well as the growing threat of hackers.  The consoles are living organisms, have vulnerabilities like we do, and are susceptible to viruses in a very literal way.  With advancements in nanotechnology twenty years later, this concept of a machine being “alive” feels more relevant than ever, as does the fear associated with giving too much control over to technology.  We now see firsthand the dangers of having too much information online, with data breaches becoming a commonplace occurrence and identities being stolen far too often.  

eXistenZ explores another concept that has become somewhat prophetic:  technology and transcendence intermingling.  Science and religion are generally considered dichotomous, but this film merges the two concepts.  Allegra’s devout followers act as though her games are their lives, worshiping her like a goddess.  Similarly, in 2019, we have become so intertwined with the internet that our livelihoods and sense of selves are dependent on it—so much so that it would cripple us as a society if it suddenly went away.  Like it or not, it has become our new god.  It is our intangible, sometimes benevolent, sometimes angry overlord.  “God, the artist, the mechanic” Gus (Willem DaFoe) says when installing Ted’s port.  Moreover, when we look at how much companies like Apple have taken a stronghold on our culture, we see further evidence of this:  its loyalists brandish the Apple logo like a cross, using it as a sense of identity and shorthand for the ideologies the logo represents.

As the title of the film suggests, this isn’t just about our relationship with technology; it is a project that questions the very nature of our existence.  The game played by Ted and Allegra is essentially “sandbox” style, and freedom of choice dictates the trajectory of their characters.  At one point, Ted takes a step back from the game and frustratedly complains to Allegra that the game lacks a definitive purpose, with the threat of death ever-looming.  Her response?  “But it’s a game everybody is already playing.”  This is an existentialist moment in the film that acknowledges humanity’s lack of predetermined fate and the notion that individual choice is ultimately what makes a person.  Throughout the film, they are hunted by an organization called The Realists, but who are ultimately the “realists” here?  The ones that acknowledge life itself is a game, and therefore playing in this virtual realm is merely an extension of that, or the ones that  have deluded themselves into thinking their lives have some sort of predestined higher purpose?  eXistenZ suggests the former.  We are all playing this game to some extent, hoping to make the right decisions to “win” at life, and trying not to die in the process.

Existentialism aside, one of the aspects that makes eXistenZ standout is its imagery.  In true Cronenberg fashion, the science fiction is presented as biological horror: the nippled, fleshy, undulating consoles are connected to a lubed-up, puckered hole in the spine via an umbilical cord-like tube, in an overtly sexualized and disgusting display.  The guns are made of bones with teeth for bullets; the cellphones are gelatinous glowing blobs.  The lines between the body and machine are completely blurred in this film, further driving home the assertion that humanity has become so enmeshed with the mechanical that it would be difficult to withdraw from it at this point.  It’s attention to details like this that makes the film exceptional among many of its sci-fi peers, and also makes it a respectable piece in the Cronenberg filmography.

The game world itself is presented in a unique manner as well.  Rather than encountering flashy, colorful landscapes one might see in modern video games, Ted and Allegra enter a world that is entirely unextraordinary and drab.  In most ways, it’s like our own world, but ever so slightly off-kilter.  The Chinese restaurant they visit, for example, is simply a barn that has a sign that says “Chinese Restaurant” on it.  The game characters seem mundane with unimpressive dialogue, needing the proper word prompts by the players to be pulled out of seemingly catatonic states.  This is not the glamorized virtual world we have seen so many times before through countless depictions in the media:  this world is grim, disappointing, and almost too close for comfort.  

Examining Cronenberg’s grotesque portrayal of machines and unsavory depictions of virtual reality, eXistenZ is a critique of everything that existed in 1999 and is even more relevant in 2019.  Cronenberg suggests that while video games and other forms of media can mirror our own lives, it can also warp them and cause palpable damage.  If you appreciate dark science fiction, and aren’t afraid of a film that is best appreciated by digging below the surface, give eXistenZ a chance.  It’s oftentimes an uncomfortable watch, but that is what makes it great.  Like the game itself, the film holds a mirror up to our very existence, which isn’t always pretty either.

--Andrea Riley