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Friday, May 12, 2000

'EXISTENZ'

Reality: the new game in town


I can say this much: If David Cronenberg ever designs a virtual reality, there's no way in hell I'm jacking in. "eXistenZ," the director's latest film -- and easily his best since 1982's "Videodrome" -- is yet another in a long line of Cronenberg films designed to make you feel queasy about having a body. Which, come to think of it, makes him perfectly suited to be tackling the spectral allure of the virtual.

In "eXistenZ," Cronenberg presents an almost plausible vision of the future, where a game-addicted society jacks directly into virtual worlds through organic technology, fleshy game "pods" with umbilical cords that are inserted directly into a rectal-like "bio-port" punched in the base of the spine. (And if you're thinking "eeeeeww!," wait till you find out what the pods are made from . . .)

As in all good sci-fi, Cronenberg is cleverly extrapolating from current trends, namely the increasing acceptance of extreme body modification, and the attempts by chip-makers like Intel to fuse animal proteins with their products. As is usual with Cronenberg, however, any fascination with biotechnology is tempered by a strong feeling of revulsion (see "The Fly," "Scanners," or "Videodrome").

"eXistenZ" is the name of the game -- literally. In Cronenberg's future, game designers are the new global pop stars, and sexy, intense Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is queen of them all. During the public debut of her new game, eXistenZ, a lone gunman takes a shot at Allegra as she's jacked into her virtual world. Wounded, she is rushed to safety by newbie bodyguard Ted Pikul (Jude Law), an employee of Antenna Research, the corporation that is marketing Allegra's games.

Ted and Allegra aren't sure who's after her or why: Maybe it's a rival corporation, or maybe it's a group of "reality fundamentalists," who have put a fatwa on Allegra. It may, in fact, even be Allegra's own employers who are after her.

Allegra is worried that her game pod (containing the only existing version of eXistenZ) may have been damaged, and decides to jack in with Ted and check it out. Ted, however, has a problem: no bio-port. As he puts it, "I have a phobia about having my body penetrated." He's hardly reassured when Allegra takes him to see Gas (Willem DaFoe), a grungy auto mechanic who leeringly makes Ted bend over as he pulls out a jackhammer-like tool to do the spinal hole-punch. (I suppose you've already picked up on the humorous subtext here.)

Ted and Allegra finally jack into her game world, only to find that jacking out is not so easy -- base-line reality seems to keep shifting from under their feet, like a bad acid trip that refuses to end. Allegra asks Ted, "So, how does it feel, the real life that you came back to?" Ted, dazed and confused, observes that "It feels completely unreal." Which may be more true than he expects. Or maybe not -- that's the game the film plays with the viewer for two hours, and the final climax will leave you reeling.

Resolutely metaphysical ("You have to play the game to find out why you're playing the game," insists Allegra) and overtly borrowing from the ontological sci-fi themes of author Philip K. Dick, "eXistenZ" clearly echoes the approach of "The Matrix." It's far more intelligent in its critique of virtual reality, though, and also of the opposite view: People won't be enslaved by their technology in an occlusive world of synthetic illusion; rather, people will gladly live in their dream worlds. (Spend some time observing your neighborhood game center, and you're likely to concur.)

Where it was a heroic act in "The Matrix" to opt out of the virtual world for the real (a curious message for a fantasy filmdriven special effects), in "eXistenZ" it's a group of violent Luddite reality-zealots who seek to tear down the escapist virtual world. Reality, Cronenberg seems to be saying, bites. It's the enemy of art, the end of imagination.

"eXistenZ" will probably fall a bit short on special effects and futurist flash for fans of films like "The Matrix" or "Blade Runner," but the drab, slightly run-down feel of Cronenberg's future is exactly what's called for: People are so enamored with their virtual worlds that they really care less about the "real" one. Gas admits that he "used to be" a greasy gas station attendant; when Ted points out that he still is, Gas says, "but only on the most pathetic level of reality."

Obviously, there are some deeper philosophical currents here, commenting on the interplay between art and technology. We all, so the gurus say, create our own reality -- abstractly, at least. "eXistenZ" imagines the day -- certainly not long in coming -- when we will be able to hardwire the cellular reality of our nervous system with the unharnessed creative potential of our imagination, and that of others. Until then, we still have the movies, and this one is definitely heading for cult classic status, more disorienting than any designer drug.

Don't be surprised if, as you exit the theater, you catch a momentary glimpse of Allegra Geller in the corner of your eye, murmuring something about "a really weird reality bleed-through happening here." Just go with it.

"eXistenZ" is playing at Marunouchi Piccadilly and other theaters.


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