Review: eXistenZ (1999)

existenz

A video game, a dream, reality, or the worst nightmare possible?

Written By: David Cronenberg
Directed By: David Cronenberg

I can see why cinephiles would leave eXistenZ with video games and reality on their minds. Those two issues, or ideas if you will, are indeed focused on in this David Cronenberg film. However, like the rest of Mr. Cronenberg’s career there is more at play in eXistenZ than what is on the surface. Beneath all the video game and reality talk there is a prescient film about free will and the government, with a hint of terrorism tossed in for good effect. Mr. Cronenberg hides his aims admirably, loading the front end of the truck so heavily with the video game and reality material that the other ethics issues that eXistenZ brings up teeter near the edge of falling off of the truck for the entire run time. But, Mr. Cronenberg loads the truck that is eXistenZ so that at every moment there is something for the viewer to mull over.

The first few minutes of eXistenZ are not the shining moments of the film. There’s a roughness to the entry point chosen for the narrative that makes getting into the film difficult. There’s also some clunkiness when it comes to how the body horror elements are introduced, such as a flesh phone or the bio-port plot device. However, after the first twenty minutes the universe of the film takes on a more lived in feel and the clunky exposition slowly trickles away. It is at that point that Mr. Cronenberg begins to fully explore the universe he has created and the minds of the characters inhabiting said universe.

It is in the exploration of decisions and the tactile where Mr. Cronenberg fully grabbed my attention. It’s not until near the end of the film when a character utters the words “free will,” but it it obvious throughout the film that eXistenZ is about the loss of free will within Western culture. Sure, we have a choice in most everything we do, but nowadays it wouldn’t be wrong to say that a lot of our free will choices are actually pre-chosen for us by a system we cannot break free from. In eXistenZ video games are the government, they are removing the free will of the people. The terrorists who are fighting against the game are the common man who want their free will restored. The genius of eXistenZ is that even the terrorists have their motives questioned. Are they really terrorists who believe in a cause, or are they cogs in a machine fulfilling a necessary purpose?

The tactile nature of eXistenZ fascinated me. I will admit that with the amount I write about the idea of being tactile in my reviews that it’s probably a personal fetish of my movie interpretation experience. However, I certainly do see lots of tactile references in eXistenZ. Early on Mr. Cronenberg uses offbeat shots of feet rubbing together and hands prancing over rough surfaces. The further into the mire of reality versus dream that the film takes us the less we see of tactile imagery. The only real anchor we have to free will and the world around us is what we touch and what we feel. As that element is removed from the film that is when it becomes more difficult to understand what is a reality versus a dream. I found it very important that by the time eXistenZ ends there are no more shots of touch, of feet rubbing together, or of anything that could be deemed tactile and real. It’s not a question of what is real, but rather the idea that we have so lost our free will that we can no longer feel anything real.

eXistenZ is not a movie for everyone, but I do feel that it should strike a chord with other fans of Mr. Cronenberg’s body of work. It’s an odd little film that bounces back quickly from a rough start to say a lot of interesting things. I love a movie that wants me to think but doesn’t want to force feed me the issues. Mr. Cronenberg layers his film and he fills eXistenZ with nuggets of filmic joy that should appeal to anyone with an open mind. In others words eXistenZ is another great thinking person’s film, and people should see it while they still have the free will to do so.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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