A true auteur and one of the great visionary directors of our time, David Cronenberg’s career has been incredibly interesting to say the least. Although his films are really varied in some ways, as we will discover here they are all in the same universe to a large extent. Personally I have them all with the exception of The Fly which I just don’t like and it has been brilliant that most of them have been getting the respect they deserve along with a much welcome upgrade to Blu-Ray. In fact looking at the remaining DVD’s I have, we are just waiting for The Dead Zone (1983), Dead Ringers (1988) M Butterfly (1993) Crash (1999) and Spider (2002) to make the transition. All of them are great films and a couple are truly remarkable so hopefully it won’t be too long.
eXistenZ was a bit of an oddity even by his standards. Very much in the realms of fantasy but again it is a film that was incredibly prescient when it came to looking at the shape of things to come. As Videodrome (1983) delved into the future of broadcasting and the way it could be fine-tuned to affect the mind, here we kind of go down the same neurally transmitted path but with virtual reality. Of course to a large extent what he realized back in 1999 is not so fantastical today when people are able to get tuned in and turned on with all sorts of contraptions taking them into another world. Like perhaps Charlie Brooker and certain cyberpunk authors though Cronenberg was always going to be one step ahead of the curve.
The plot is to put it simply a bit of a head-fuck and for that reason the film is not instantly one that is easy to grasp, a fact that did to a certain extent put people off at the time of release. It is definitely one that like much of his oeuvre reveals more on repeated viewings for those that are prepared to work on it. In an undisclosed time completely immersive VR is the big thing in the game world and one gets the feeling that it has taken over much of life as we know it. Gamers are ported into other worlds directly through an implant into their body and controlling hubs are strange fleshy contraptions that live and breathe attuned to user’s minds and emotions. The game designers are the new gods and one of them Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is showcasing new creation eXistenZ to a group of keen nerds (in a church no less) and letting them get a taste of it for the first time. It’s interesting to note that the participants appear to be from all walks and demographics of life and so we assume that gaming is huge and everyone is involved in playing rather than getting on with things in the real world.
During the trial an assassination attempt is made on Allegra by a killer with a gun made of bones and using human teeth for bullets to get it through any conventional metal detectors. Out of his depth marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law) saves the day and her life and they flee with paranoia and would be killers after her along with the only copy of the game which may have been irretrievably damaged in the process. They meet strange characters on the way such as Gas (William Dafoe) a garage attendant who also performs the odd bio-tech implant and enter a fascinating and strange universe both in the real and virtual world in the process but what exactly is reality and what is a game? The film actually plays like a game at times too with characters needing interaction to get to the next part and it is all as clever as it is bamboozling. Naturally there are all sorts of wonders from mutated creatures to strange futuristic technology; even a mobile phone is a fleshy pulsating thing that looks more like some bizarre sex toy. Then there is the splatter and gore, don’t let the 15 certificate fool you Cronenberg and his FX team know all about that and there are scenes of mayhem aplenty. If you ever have the chance invite from the director to go for a Chinese meal with him, my advice would be to politely decline.
It’s the crossover points to the rest of the body horror world of the director that fascinates here. The fleshy bio-port process could be looked at as the vaginal yin to the parasitical penis yan of Rabid (1977). The on the run scenario and the being hunted by people regarding the Allegra as a dangerous enemy of society, harks back to Scanners (1981). The gun in particular and the strange technology is very much the new flesh and this could even be seen as the world post Videodrome (1983). Then of course there is the utilisation of mutant creatures into the technology which harks straight to the director and William S Burroughs vision of Naked Lunch (1991). No doubt there are others you will discover along the way. Cronenberg often worked with the same crew and some staple actors so this all helps create his world from the fantastic sinister orchestrations of composer Howard Shore to the imaginative attention to detail from production designer Carol Spier. Always taking risks with actors you might not expect to be in a film like this (Jude Law here and Robert Pattison Cosmopolis 2012 being cases in point) Cronenberg always seems to get the most out of them. Add to this some great lesser roles from the likes of Christopher Eccleston, Ian Holm, Dafoe and Sarah Polley and you have a very admirable cast list. I’m not sure whether I should advise you to go into eXistenZ straight, you certainly won’t come out of it feeling that way and “there’s definitely an element of psychosis involved here.” I enjoyed it on first view back on original release, others were totally divided perhaps explaining why 101 Films are releasing this in a cautious 3000 copies only edition. Grab one while you can!
There’s stacks of extra content, some “ported over” from previous editions others brand new. Commentary trackers are rewarded with no less than 3! We have one with Cronenberg, 1 with film critic Kim Newman and author and ‘Den of Geek’ deputy editor Ryan Lambie and 1 with Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson and documentary producer Edwin Samuelson. Onto the features and there’s well over two hours of content here. First up is a chat with Eccleston who was called up in the UK in his parent’s kitchen, completely out the blue and invited to come and star in eXistenZ. He advises everyone to watch The Dead Zone (1983) as it is like much of the director’s work completely prophetic and has huge parallels to Trump, although obviously Stephen king too deserves some credit there. Having an identical twin brother he loves Dead Ringers, must have freaked him out a little too. Relaxed, democratic and good humoured, apparently Cronenberg involved everyone and there was a near family vibe on set. Some cool anecdotes here from the future Doctor Who and the Salford lad obviously enjoyed his stint even if he did cause some mayhem with a Frisbee between shooting. As with the DVD we have a 53 minute feature dedicated to the production design of Carol Spier who has worked with the director throughout his career as well as on many other features from Mimic to Blade II and Silent Hill. It’s an in depth look starting with her introduction to Cronenberg on drag racing flick Fast Company (1979) through to the difficult jobs of the dark cold look of Dead Ringers and the exotic strangeness of Naked Lunch. With the main impetus on eXistenZ and with input from the director and others in the crew you get a really thorough insight into just what the job of production design involves. Responsible for the main look of the film it’s a massive job and crosses over into many other aspects of bringing a film from the script stage to the screen. An incredible eye for detail is just one of the many qualities necessary and this is a great watch for any budding film-maker and technical artist.
There’s short promo and special effects pieces and one thing that they unveil is the fact that the inspiration for the film is actually the fatwa put on Salman Rushdie. The game is the blasphemy of the future world; well we have probably all encountered someone who has been hopelessly addicted and hooked up to them for hours on end so it’s not that far-fetched when you think about it. After these we have back-stage interviews with cast Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, William Dafoe, Visual Effects designer Jim Isaac and David Cronenberg. Jude Law is apparently a bit of a gamer and got very interested in the technology side of things since being involved in the film. He really seems to have given the film and his part in it a lot of consideration and intelligently sums it all up. Leigh’s only got an inconsequential minute or so and Dafoe smiles his way through his questions and sums up his part in the film and his enjoyment of working with the director. He is unlike Law much more of a Luddite when it comes to technology. Isaac gets a hefty segment just under half an hour long and takes us through many of the wildly imaginative creations. No doubt watching it you too will want a gristle gun of your own and a two headed salamander creature for a pet. The gross out realism of the things that were made is incredibly striking. It sounds like understanding the script and the director’s wild ideas were paramount to the success of his work and indeed the entire project; luckily it seems like they were all on the level as far as that was concerned. “Do you ever think this sort of technology could exist,” the interviewer asks? Food for thought!
eXistenZ “the twists and turns at the end were too many and it made my head spin” states one character and that might well sum it all up for you. Press start to enter at the following link.