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The Boston Phoenix Marginal eXistenZ

Cronenberg on the people games play

By Peter Keough

APRIL 26, 1999:  All the world may be a game, as David Cronenberg would have you believe in his checkered new eXistenZ, and all the men and women merely players. But it would help if the rules and characters had some of the depth and imagination of Myst, let alone As You Like It. Bringing a light touch to the grave issues of mortality, illusion, identity, and technology that have obsessed him throughout his career, Cronenberg turns them into a diverting, disorienting, ultimately inconsequential hand of solitaire.

Set -- and this remains a problematic but oddly unprovocative idea throughout the film -- in a Shaker-plain church in a generic countryside, eXistenZ begins (or ends, perhaps -- it doesn't seem to matter much) with superstar computer-game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh, blowzy but affectless, like much of the cast) initiating a select group into her new virtual-reality game, her "baby": "eXistenZ." In this futuristic or alternative universe, computer development has taken a biological turn -- instead of PCs, hackers boot up to a "MetaFlesh Game-Pod" (this is the kind of film that includes a glossary of terms in the press notes), a cross between a polymorphous sexual organ and a Furby that connects directly to the user's central nervous system by means of a veiny, pulsing "UmbyCord" inserted into an anal-looking "Bioport" surgically implanted into the base of the spine. Although the software is decidedly flesh-bound and icky, the result is a meta-world of conflict and thrills without consequences, bringing the illusion of liberation from the material here-and-now.

For some "Realists," though, this is all blasphemy. Assembling a "gristle gun" out of what looks like back-up from a garbage disposal, an undercover fanatic in the group shouts "Death to the demoness . . . !" and fires a clip of human teeth at Allegra, wounding her. It's an arresting image, but derivative and gratuitous -- the gun made flesh made a much bigger impact in Cronenberg's far more disturbing Videodrome, as did the whole notion of the metamorphosis of the body into machinery and vice versa (a theme also explored in Cronenberg's masterpiece, The Fly).

Similarly, the subsequent tale of escape from and confrontation with nebulous conspiratorial forces, not to mention that old chestnut the nature of reality, has been brought to light by the filmmaker with more conviction in the likes of Scanners and Naked Lunch. Neither does Cronenberg seem to be taking too seriously the parallels to eXistenZ's ostensible inspiration -- the Islamic fatwa against Salman Rushdie. But after his portentous and pretentious Crash got burned by critics, audiences, and the ratings board, maybe he deserves a chance to be playful about subjects that are tormenting, irresolvable, and generally shunned by movie studios and audiences looking for a good time.

And so, after the assassination attempt, eXistenZ turns into a kind of cyber-road movie, as Allegra flees with the help of Ted Pikul (a bewildered Jude Law), an office drone for the Antenna Research Corporation, which manufactures her games. They seek refuge at a ski chalet run by her crony Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm with the worst Russian accent since John Malkovich in Rounders), where Allegra determines that to get to the root of the problem she and Ted must both log on to "eXistenZ."

The game, though, proves a dud. Ted, a neophyte to the experience (a scene in which Willem Dafoe implants Ted's Bioport with a device the size of a jackhammer is one of eXistenZ's many redeeming double-entendres), expresses ecstatic wonder when he tunes in and finds himself -- in a computer-game store! As the scenario develops, some of Cronenberg's characteristic kinky, carnal wit comes to the fore. Don McKellar as a flaky, Slavic proprietor of a factory manufacturing mutant amphibians for computer parts and Asian cuisine serves up a particularly satisfying portion of the grotesque and hilarious.

Yet the virtual world of eXistenZ won't make anyone question the one we live in: the game touches on the appeal of disposable lives and death as a gateway to a next level of experience that computer games offer, but without compelling passion or detail. Undoubtedly Cronenberg's intent is as much satirical, if not self-parodic, as philosophical; he's created a send-up of the entertainment industry as all-consuming devourer of individuality and genuine experience. Nonetheless, it seems perverse to sacrifice such an outstanding cast to wooden performances in order to point out that movies and television have deteriorated into cartoons. In eXistenZ, play might be the thing, but all it's likely to capture is passing attention.

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