Reel Science

David Cronenberg’s Freakiest Sci-Fi Movie Is Hiding Some Bizarre, Real Science

Overshadowed at the time by The Matrix, eXistenZ floundered at the box office but went on to become a cult classic.

Existenz art collage
Lais Borges/Inverse; Alliance Atlantis
Reel Science

In 1999, two sci-fi movies left us questioning our reality. One was full of heart, groundbreaking special effects, and Keanu Reeves — a predestined blockbuster. The other brought body horror, Willem Dafoe leaning into madness in a scene-stealing bit part, and a truly edgy biopunk spin on VR that all led to it being overshadowed and overlooked.

The first, of course, is The Matrix, which made more than $450 million at the box office. The other is David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, which floundered at the box office but, like many Cronenberg movies, went on to become a cult classic.

At the heart of eXistenZ, like The Matrix, is a virtual reality that pulls people into its thrall. But this being Cronenberg, it gets a lot grosser and a lot weirder than its more mainstream cousin. At the heart of it all is a sort of living machine that pulls people into a shared reality. It’s like a console that can be ported around, but is only accessible for those that have given themselves a port in their neck, which enables connection to the titular eXistenZ, which is basically like a hyper-violent MMORPG.

While the technology isn’t ever given a fleshed-out (sorry) explanation in the film, we know it’s made out of biological parts. And while our reality is far, far from that of eXistenZ, there is some basis for the science. After all, researchers have grown brain-like cells in a lab that have demonstrated the ability to interface with our technology, and have presented some interesting ethical questions along the way. To separate petri dish reality from Cronenberg’s more foul fictions, we talked to a toxicologist/pharmacologist who works with these strange bioengineered clumps and did some digging into the advances in lab grown cells.

Organoids have enabled scientists to cut back on animal research.

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In recent years, stem cell advances have given medical researchers an important tool to replicate organ tissue often using adult stem cells in order to study medications, interventions, infections and more without having to harm a living person. Called organoids, they’ve also enabled scientists to cut back on animal research.

Once the cells are created in a lab, they’re placed in a growth medium that has to be replaced every few days. It provides the organoids with the nutrition they need to stay alive, but the need to replace the medium every few days is disruptive to the organoids.

There are organoids for many organs, but one of the more interesting ones are brain tissue, which create rudimentary, small brains, which toxicologist Thomas Hartung of Johns Hopkins University tells Inverse are currently about the same size as a house fly’s at about 0.5 millimeters.

“They're tiny like snowflakes, but they are all the same size, and for most of our disease models, this is enough,” Hartung says. But these “snowflakes” have produced breakthroughs in Parkinson’s and autism research, giving biologists insight into chemical precursors that could lead to either condition.

Willem Dafoe in eXistenZ.

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Brain organoids also have a weirder side. For instance, while they are about as complex as a house fly’s, the organoids been taught to play Pong and to drive a small toy car through a Bluetooth connection. “We are already combining even these small brain organoids with little video games where they start learning to control very simple movements,” Hartung says.

But the goal is to move from half a millimeter to an entire centimeter, which Hartung says would put it at about twice the size of a mouse brain. This would allow more electrodes to be placed in the system, and give a way to interface with the brain, in part through artificial intelligence feeding it information. This gives some researchers pause, as this could risk the organoids becoming conscious in some sense.

“We have at least to consider the possibility that some self-awareness could take place, but in a very simple form,” Hartung says. “But still if you're training the system, if you're giving it feedback or information about its environment, it suddenly could realize what is happening to it.”

The technology hasn’t been scaled up to this level yet, but as a precautionary measure, organoid researchers keep ethicists on hand to guide them on their research and ensure that guardrails are in place that prevent ethical lines from being crossed.

There’s a kernel of truth in eXistenZ, it’s that scientists can hatch an artificial brain-like cell mass in a lab, and even get it to interface with computers.

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So organoids aren’t being created to bring eXistenZ into existence, but there’s just a kernel of truth in it — we’ve created a biotechnology that can interface with real-world gadgets. But the benefits of it create important opportunities in medical research, and reducing the need for animal test subjects with biological similarities to humans, such as monkeys.

“My expectation is that we can learn more about the physiology of learning by having a system which you can manipulate, which you can study without ethical problems, and without the enormous effort of poking electrodes in macaque brains, and use these type of things to study simple cellular mechanisms, and we can possibly learn why the brain is such an efficient computer,” Hartung says.

So maybe it’s not creating a virtual reality realm out of bioengineered parts, or interfacing with some twisted biology. But if there’s a kernel of truth in eXistenZ, it’s that scientists can hatch an artificial brain-like cell mass in a lab, and even get it to interface with computers. In effect, by being asked to play some video games, the organoids are entering a sort of strange virtual reality of their own … but thankfully, they’re not conscious of it.


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