David Cronenberg’s Gooiest Sci-Fi Movie Saw the Future of Gaming Culture

Watch what you eat.

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David Cronenberg is never going to make the sort of crowd-pleasing blockbuster you take your friends and family to for a fun Friday night, but it was especially challenging for him to put out a sci-fi about disquieting virtual realities mere weeks after The Matrix blew up the box office. The Wachowskis’ made a cultural phenomenon full of thrilling kung fu battles that introduced touchstone sci-fi concepts. Cronenberg made a movie where Jude Law slurps the meat off a mutated reptile, then assembles its bones into a gun that fires his own teeth.

Set in a vague biopunk future, Existenz (pronounced egg-siz-stance, and stylized, in the most ‘90s way imaginable, as eXistenZ) posits a wild, almost unbelievable world where grown adults get really mad about video games. So-called “Game pod goddess” Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is about to introduce her new VR game, eXistenZ, to a small test audience, when someone shouts “Death to the Demoness” and shoots her with a gnarly gun. Geller survives, and marketing newbie Ted Pikul (Jude Law) helps her escape. Unsure who she can trust, and worried about her game’s integrity, Geller forces Pikul to play eXistenZ even as it begins to unravel his mind.

Part of a turn of the millennium wave of sci-fi that toyed with perceptions of reality (see also Strange Days, The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, and Open Your Eyes, among others), Existenz is undeniably the gooiest. The organic game pods, which look like a fetus crossed with a Mad Catz controller, have long umbilical cords with phallic heads that connect to “bio-ports” installed in players’ spines. We see other biotech — when Jude Law takes a phone call it looks like he’s answering a nightlight — but the squishy, fleshy consoles take center stage, then promptly ooze all over it.

The sexual nature of the bio-ports should be obvious, and if not, a hesitant Pikul telling an eager Geller, “I have this phobia about having my body penetrated” will clear up any confusion. The port-shy Pikul has a black market orifice installed by Willem Dafoe (a gas station attendant named Gas, in one of several absurd touches), and then he and Geller spend an indecent amount of the runtime lubricating and penetrating holes in each other’s body that look somewhat akin to colostomy ports. We’ll move on before you get too aroused, but it’s certainly a memorable method for entering a virtual world.

The world’s sexiest co-op experience.

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Unfortunately, that virtual world is a bit underwhelming. While Cronenberg can’t be faulted for failing to predict the all-consuming future of the gaming industry at a time when Donkey Kong 64 was topping the sales charts, eXistenZ is kind of a cruddy game. A perfectly simulated VR world certainly beats the Metaverse, but wandering around a gas station and trout farm doesn’t jive with today’s world of addictive loot boxes and season passes. We’re supposed to be staggered when we learn Geller’s game cost 38 million dollars, but the piddling number comes across like an amusing time capsule.

eXistenZ (the game) sees Geller and Pikul caught in a cat-and-mouse struggle between a VR game company and underground radicals trying to violently end the industry’s “deforming” of reality. It’s a bit rushed — Pikul loses his sense of self as quickly as a freshman having their first illicit appletini — but the unsettling ambiguity of both the real and unreal worlds are a refreshing contrast to The Matrix’s exhaustive worldbuilding. Unfortunately, the amateur philosophizing is still there. When Pikul tells Geller her game world has rules he can’t understand, is devoid of true meaning, and could theoretically kill him at any moment, the conversation all but ends with the pair turning to the camera and saying, “Just like real life.

Those flaws, plus a twist ending you’ll see coming a virtual mile away, keep eXistenZ from being a classic, but it’s still singular enough to be worth revisiting. While eXistenZ was buried under Matrix comparisons and mixed reviews in 1999, today it feels more like a horny, low-budget precursor to Inception. If that doesn’t excite you at least a little, then you’re just a stick-in-the-mud Realist.

Bon appétit.

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While Cronenberg is synonymous with body horror, this was his last foray into the genre until 2022’s Crimes of the Future. Maybe eXistenZ’s financial failure encouraged him to embrace the thriller, or maybe he’d just run out of things to say — there are moments when eXistenZ feels like a Videodrome retread. But there are also moments when it feels like Cronenberg is leaving it all out on the blood-soaked field, and that passion remains admirable as The Matrix lapses into safe, corporate sequels a quarter-century later.

It also ends, despite some goofiness, with an intriguing message. As alienating and disorienting as emerging technology can be, it’s the Realists and their quest to destroy nouveau creators who come across the worst here. While contemporary sci-fi was bombarding viewers with warnings about tech, Cronenberg replied with a warning about people. (At the time, he was inspired by the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.) But when Dafoe’s game-addicted gas station attendant kisses Geller’s feet one moment, then threatens to kill her the next, you can’t help but think that maybe Cronenberg actually did have a handle on where gaming was going.

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