In Praise of Discomfort

eXistenZ

No good movie in recent memory has made me feel as perfectly awful and unsettled as David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. The movie is beautifully made, engaging, and sometimes even funny, but it’s also repulsive and disturbing, and not just because of the director’s now-standard disfigurement fetish.

Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Geller, a world-famous video-game inventor whose entertainment modules plug directly into the human body; flesh consoles are connected to the “bio-port” (an anus-like opening at the base of the spine) via umbilical cords of a sort. But during the first demonstration of her latest creation (eXistenZ, naturally), an anti-virtual-reality fanatic shoots her, and she flees with Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a bio-port-phobic public-relations nerd who’s supposed to protect her.

While in hiding, Ted gets equipped with his first bio-port (from a greasy, grinning Willem Dafoe) and then his second (from a jabbering, unintelligible Ian Holm) so Allegra can introduce him to eXistenZ. Inside the game, the two are fitted with smaller, invasive game modules — a game within a game and so on — but no matter the reality, the pair is caught in the middle of industrial intrigue and sabotage involving video-game bio-technology.

The plot and premise, of course, are not even mildly original. The virtual-reality horse had already been flogged several times too many when eXistenZ was released in 1999, and the movie is largely a re-make of Cronenberg’s 1983 movie Videodrome, down to a battle cry: “Long live the new flesh” in the earlier, “Death to the demoness” here. eXistenZ is also full of familiar Cronenberg motifs, from wholly organic guns and machines to disgusting self-dentistry to unnatural bodily interfaces.

But in nearly all his past movies, the director turned his stories into emotionally flat-lined intellectual and psychological exercises. This time, the famously cold Canadian sucks the audience into the characters and the story, something he hasn’t managed (he really hasn’t tried, actually) since 1986’s The Fly. This is all the more impressive considering the story operates on multiple levels of illusion and reality, and that the characters themselves often don’t even fully control what they’re doing. (Allegra tells Ted to just give in; he’ll shoot the gun anyway, so he might as well enjoy it.)

The film’s power is at least partly a function of its timing; the movie came during a largely superficial public discussion on the effects of video games on children. But eXistenZ is about video games only on the surface; its larger concern is disconnection, and how our media comas seem to have eroded our bond with reality so much that we’ve lost the ability to act based on philosophy, ethics, or even real motives. We are a culture of impulse and reflex.

Not exactly a new idea, but eXistenZ jars viewers by making them complicit, guilty. Watching the movie, we are as physically passive as the characters in the games, and being entranced into a different reality by the images on the screen made me squirm more than a little.

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