Game Boy

Film still for Game Boy

David Cronenberg's virtual-reality comedy eXistenZ is a sly return to the themes that made his name, argues Chris Rodley

eXistenZ. It's new. And it's here. It's a virtual-reality game that's almost indistinguishable from lived experience and it's also the new movie from David Cronenberg. What's more, it's the first wholly original creation from the director since Videodrome (1982) - the film his legions of fans regard as his quintessential work because it most effectively captures the alarming nature of the cinema's invasion of the passive self. eXistenZ is Videodrome's inverse twin, in which the active self invades cinema.

I talked to Cronenberg in London, a city which greeted his last cinema release Crash with an uproar of tabloid outrage. He'd just arrived from the Berlin Film Festival where eXistenZ had received its world premiere and its director had won a Silver Bear for "outstanding artistic achievement". But there was an air of dread about him. The near-psychotic reaction of some British film critics to Crash seems to have scarred him. To Cronenberg, being in London with a new movie feels "creepy".

Over the past 17 years Cronenberg has played the symbiotic bug, gleefully infecting other people's texts with his own concerns - novels as diverse as Stephen King's The Dead Zone, William Burroughs' Naked Lunch and J. G. Ballard's Crash. There's also David H. Hwang's play M Butterfly and the rethinking of the 1958 sci-fi movie The Fly. Even Dead Ringers (1988) was loosely based on the real-life case of identical twin gynaecologists Cyril and Stewart Marcus. eXistenZ, however, is completely new.

Shy, sexy Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is an adored game-devising goddess in a near future in which the inventors of virtual-reality games have become cultural megastars. Her new game, eXistenZ, plugs so effectively into an individual's desires and fears that the frontiers between fantasy and reality disappear completely, leaving the player wandering compass-less in landscapes and situations that may or may not be of their own imagining. However, this successful game genius has fanatical enemies - both those who are against gaming and rival gaming companies. After a botched attempt on her life during eXistenZ's first public demonstration, Allegra finds herself on the run with Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a novice security guard for Antenna Research, the hi-tech toy company with millions of dollars invested in the game.

The intense game reality of eXistenZ is produced by its unique Game Pod, an organic creature grown from fertilised amphibian eggs stuffed with synthetic DNA. Resembling a kidney with large, aroused nipples, the fleshy, pulsating device is connected to each player via an UmbyCord which plugs directly into a Bioport at the base of the spine. Hotwired into the human nervous system, the pod has unrestricted access to personal memories, anxieties and preoccupations. With a $5 million Fatwa on her head from one company or another (possibly her own employers), Allegra, accompanied by Ted, embarks on a synaptic road movie into the virtual heart of her own game where nothing - and this is a gross understatement - is as it seems.

Cronenberg works this game/movie connection into a metaphor so effective that as soon as eXistenZ is over you feel the need to 'play' the film again to understand its rules more fully, certain you must have missed something. In that sense the effect is like seeing Verbal Kint limping then walking briskly away at the end of The Usual Suspects (19xx) and wanting to revisit all the prompts on the cop's bulletin board that he used to garnish his tall tale of Kaysser Soze. As one might expect from Cronenberg, eXistenZ fuses all the components of cinema - storytelling, acting, production design, sound, images, music - to play with the viewer at the same time as representing the game to them. But what makes eXistenZ potentially dangerous is its philosophic basis. Like reality, it can bite. Literally. It's a virtual-reality game. And it's a movie.


"It came as a shock to me," Cronenberg says of the idea. "It wasn't out of desperation, or a feeling of, 'Oh my god, I haven't written anything original for a while and therefore I haven't been true to my flame.' I was just ready to write something original. The spark for it, though, was the Salman Rushdie affair. I had an idea for a sci-fi movie that would have something to do with that situation, which horrified and fascinated me at the same time."

In the spring of 1995, while still conceiving eXistenZ, Cronenberg was asked by Shift magazine in Canada to interview Rushdie. "I might have had the idea of making the artist character in the movie a game designer even then. Why that should be, I don't know. It just was. Maybe I wanted some distance, some metaphorical play that wasn't autobiographical." During the interview, and unbeknownst to Rushdie, Cronenberg tested his ideas out on the fugitive writer. "We talked about games and about computers. He'd had to learn about computers because, being on the run, he needed to work on a laptop. He couldn't do things the way he used to. That meeting crystallised things for me, so I posited a time when games could be art, and a game designer could be an artist."

With eXistenZ Cronenberg has returned wholeheartedly to his most abiding source of ideas - radical developments in bio-technology, and their often disturbing, but potentially liberating, consequences. As in the telekinetic conspiracy tale Scanners (19xx) and the telepornographic hypnosis conspiracy tale Videodrome, the appropriation (or destruction) of these developments by political interests drives the narrative. Indeed, Cronenberg revamps some of Videodrome's notions of "the new flesh" as technological hardware, confident that some of his seemingly outrageous past imaginings have become reality. For instance, Dr Dan Kelloid's "neutralised" skin grafts in Rabid (1976) are now science fact, not fiction.

Cronenberg: "It's bizarre that something I invented then has come to pass. By using foetal or umbilical tissue they can now make a skin graft that will work on a kidney or whatever because it doesn't know what it is yet. It just says: 'Oh, I can be this.' But that's a classic sci-fi thing, like Arthur C. Clarke saying, 'I invented satellites ten years before they happened.' I'm not interested in being that kind of techno-prophet. However, I'm very aware of what's happening with computers and I find it very exciting.

"Intel and all the chip makers are now experimenting with animal proteins as the basis for their chips. They can't use metals any more - they have to get right down to the molecular and even atomic level. Imagine the market! People will want it - either on the entertainment or the health front. You have your little case full of different organs that have been designed specifically for game playing. Or organs for things we've never had before. You could have new sexual organs - which I play with metaphorically in the movie. They could be very pleasurable in a way no naturally derived organ has been. People are having surgery for all kinds of frivolous reasons, so why not have it for a really good functional reason?"

Sex you've never even dreamed of

In this bio-degradable anti-metal world, many of the aesthetic signatures Cronenberg's critics love to disparage - deadpan acting, anonymous-looking locations, lack of 'drama' - become virtual virtues. This is not a hand-eye co-ordination-testing shoot-em-up world at all, but something that allows the participant to take decisions at their own pace. At a certain point, eXistenZ takes the viewer inside Allegra's game, providing a complex Chinese-box structure to the film itself because the game and its framing 'reality' look so similar. Although the "reality bleeds" continually signalled throughout the movie are not an original device, they presage a massive narrative haemorrhage at the end, so much so that it's impossible to give an in-depth synopsis of the film without literally giving the game away.

"When I started writing it," says Cronenberg, "I remember thinking I wouldn't play the game in the movie; that it would be about an artist on the run. I'd allude to the game and you'd see people playing it, but the audience would never get into it. It would be like an elegant frustration. But that didn't last long. Once I'd started, I thought, 'I wanna see what this game's all about!' At that point it became a meditation on the virtual-reality genre and how I didn't want to be part of it. As soon as you do, you're Lawmower Man, you're Strange Days, whatever. Of course we have to be arrogant and assume that we can do something no one else has done."

And the weight of Cronenberg's recent past - the somewhat solemn debates engendered by his films of the key counterculture novels Naked Lunch and Crash - has been lifted in another way. The concern to work at the level of metaphor remains, but there's now a rich vein of black humour. eXistenZ is never more hilarious than in the scene where Ted Pikul gets fitted with a Bioport (he doesn't have one because of a phobia about having his body penetrated) so he can play eXistenZ with Allegra in order to assess the damage done to her MetaFlesh Game Pod during an assassination attempt. The trouble is, the fitting has to be done off the beaten track in less than hygienic circumstances by a greasy mechanic named Gas (Willem Dafoe in gleeful, Bobby Peru mode). Pikul's virginal fear (brilliantly conveyed by Jude Law), a filthy Bioport insertion gun (the device that shoots the port-plug right into the base of the spine) and an explosive 'fitting' - which leaves Pikul face down in agony, legs paralysed, while Gas goes "to wash up" - are so loaded with obvious sexual content the scene threatens to burst.

eXistenZ is full of such scenes, and Allegra's game works on so many levels as bio-apparatus and as metaphor that everything the characters say, do or see offers multiple meanings - sexuality being only one of them. "At Berlin one French journalist wondered if I was aware of the homosexuality in that scene because to him it was totally an anal-fuck scene. So I said. 'Y-e-e-s-s... I can see that now you mention it!' Humour was always there in my films, even in Crash, but here it's right up front. The whole middle of the movie plays like a comedy, basically. People sometimes think you decide to be funny, or you decide it's time to lighten up, but it wasn't intentional. There's a ton of sex in the movie, metaphorically speaking, and because it pleased me so much, I didn't want to spoil it with real sex. I'm saying, 'This is better sex. This is sex you've never even dreamed of before. Let's just concentrate on this and the variations of it."

eXistenZ was initially developed by MGM, and the studio was concerned that the central character is a woman. "Their own demographics tell them this kind of movie is going to be attractive to young men - because it's sci-fi and about games - and that young men don't want the lead to be a girl. They want it to be them. Suddenly you realise you've not written quite so commercially viable a script as you thought. Feminist so-called paranoia about Hollywood is absolutely justified."

Cronenberg himself had first conceived of the game artists as male, "because it's me, Salman Rushdie, whatever", but the script didn't snap into place until he made the character a woman. "It's that whole physical and role-reversal thing. If Allegra were a man and Ted a woman, imagine the scene where he has to talk her into getting a Bioport fitted so he can plug into her. It's the guy fucking the girl, it would have been crude. But the punishment came when we tried to find a hot young actor to play a character like Ted, because they don't want to be subservient. Even in unusual movies you see that same old American macho stuff is still going on."

Existentialists versus realists

eXistenZ 's near-future vision is set in a countryside littered with old buildings now being used for something other than their original function. This move away from the city comes out of a decision made by Cronenberg with regular collaborators Carol Spier (production designer) and Peter Suschitsky (director of photography) to remove from this world everything people would expect from a sci-fi movie about game playing. There are no computers, computer screens, televisions, sneakers, watches, clocks, jewellery or suits. The result of this multiplication of minor subtractions is perfectly subliminal: you can feel the operation of a 'look', but its exact nature is elusive.

"I removed Blade Runner, basically," admits Cronenberg. "The production design of that movie has a weird life of its own. It's almost as if that world exists. It's a very interesting phenomenon. Instead, we were replicating some of the style of some video games. If you want a character to wear a plaid shirt, it takes up a lot of memory, so it's much easier if he has a solid beige shirt. So I was trying to replicate the blandness or blockiness of the polygon structure of some games."

Everywhere in the eXistenZ world there are game players, game inventors, game doctors and game manufacturers. As Gas declares, he's a garage mechanic, "only on the most pathetic level of reality". But the countryside is also home to fundamentalist fanatics opposed to the "radical deforming of reality" caused by such games. Around this conflict is where Rushdie, the game, the movie, cinema and the metaphor that is eXistenZ itself fuse so effortlessly. eXistenZ's supporters proclaim "Death to realism!" and describe its wounded and weary as "victims of realism". When Allegra's MetaFlesh Game Pod, at one point hopelessly diseased, explodes in a shower of black spores, they are the smothering black spores of "reality". This play-off of perceptions is what makes eXistenZ such an unexpected meditation on cinema. The characters yelling "Long live realism!" are not only, on a purely narrative level, the enemy of eXistenZ the game; they are literally enemies of eXistenZ the movie - which continually toys with reality precisely for our visceral and intellectual pleasure.

Humorous as eXistenZ is, there's a small scene at the centre that slyly represents the underlying seriousness of the project. Wandering around in a disused virtual-reality trout farm where components for Game Pods are now being bred from mutated amphibians, Ted confesses to Allegra: "I don't want to be here. We're stumbling around in the unformed world, not knowing what the rules are, or if there are any rules. We're under attack from forces that want to destroy us but that we don't understand". The game goddess replies: "Yeah, that's my game." Ted can only observe sarcastically, "It's a game that's going to be difficult to market." But Allegra has the last word: "It's a game everyone's already playing."

Cronenberg: "I'm talking about the existentialists, i.e. the game players, versus the realists. The deforming of reality is a criticism that has been levelled against all art, even religious icons, which has to do with man being made in God's image, so you can't make images of either. Art is a scary thing to a lot of people because it shakes your understanding of reality, or shapes it in ways that are socially unacceptable. As a card-carrying existentialist I think all reality is virtual. It's all invented. It's collaborative, so you need friends to help you create a reality. But it's not about what is real and what isn't.

"At Berlin I jokingly said that movie is existentialist propaganda. I meant it playfully, of course. But I have come to believe that this is the game we are playing. In Berlin I didn't even get into the discussion about mortality. That's even more basic - the absurdity of human existence. Because it's too short to be able to understand enough, to synthesise enough, to make intelligent choices. So we are blundering around, all the time terrified because we know we're going to die at some extremely inopportune moment."

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012