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The game of the name is "eXistenZ"

By Ray Pride

APRIL 26, 1999:  What would our continent's film culture be without the fine minds and finer financing structures of our neighbors up north?

While Canadians have a reputation for politeness, or for eccentric comedy, it's the serious filmmakers who have some serious issues they're always pleased, eh, to work out on screen. From Atom Egoyan to Bruce McDonald, to Guy Maddin and Don McKellar, most contemporary filmmakers of the Dominion owe some sort of debt to the example of David Cronenberg and his mediations on mortality and the flesh. Cronenberg's craft grows more refined and retrained with each go-round and it's shocking to be able to say how much more severe "eXistenZ" is than even the relentless, forbidding "Crash."

Yet "eXistenZ" is also a playful movie, making fun of itself, tearing its premises apart, flinging Chinese-box notions away from scene to scene. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Gellar, the "game goddess" of some future time where video games are played on a biological level and virtual reality becomes a kind of molecular reality. Things go awry at a test session, when a "realist" terrorist attacks the game's players with a gun made of bone that shoots teeth ("The tooth fairy could go into munitions," someone jokes.) Finding a $5 million bounty on her head, Allegra must hit country roads of ever-darker night with Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a virgin to the game. To play, you jack into a prosthetic umbilicus - an "UmbyCord" - in an anus-like port that's been bolt-gunned into your spine. Since it's a David Cronenberg movie, we do get a scene where Pikul suffers this paralyzing violation at the end of a nasty jack-hammer like tool, wielded by gleefully grimy gas station attendant Willem Dafoe. And of course, we would have a scene where Allegra says to Pikul, "New ports are sometimes a little tight," wetting her finger, anxious to explore his glistening new opening, a fleshy orifice like a new mouth ready to swallow up the game's sensations. (Unsafe gaming, I'd say.)

While marketed by Miramax's Dimension genre arm, "eXistenZ" is actually an intellectual's roller-coaster ride, a densely articulated philosophical exploration of story as game, of all identity as role-playing. Allegra and Pikul move further along the road, the story, the game, making discoveries that are self-referential and superficially funny but ever more horrific by implications. Cronenberg extends Stewart Brand's "We are as gods, we might as well be good at it," to a new manifesto, "We might as well make games of it." To describe the plot fully would destroy the story; let's leave it at calling "eXistenZ" an existentialist conundrum that out-stranges even the conspiracy paranoia of Mamet's "Homicide." There are moments of stark beauty throughout; it takes a director of Cronenberg's discernment to find the subtler qualities of Leigh's fugitive beauty; and the director's familiar collaborators summon up fine work, from Carol Spier's pointedly vacant production design; the bruised glamour of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky's damp night air and Howard Shore's score, with his customary shimmer of aural gloaming. In fact, "eXistenZ" boasts the sort of sumptuous, sleek, symmetrical visual style that's ripe for witless accusations of artistic and esthetic pretension. Yet when Leigh's cat-mouth curls sand she emits in a lightly nasal purr, "I was wandering through eXistenZ," the bold metaphor doesn't make the eyes roll. Instead, you slump further in your seat, murmuring, "Hey, sister, aren't we all?"

Cronenberg has said there were two impulses working as he wrote. The first came from a conversation with Salman Rushdie - what is it like to be on the run where you try to become faceless yet the world does instead? And then to make a movie that was "existential propaganda," a virtual reality movie "without 'Blade Runner,'" boasting no computers, no cities, no high-tech. Only ideas. The landscape is the Zone of Tarkovsky's "Stalker," a future without futurism or neon or dystopian city-hives.

"You have to play the game to find out why you're playing the game," Allegra says. So we watch, the unfurling of a game about playing games and making games and of becoming its makers yet becoming confounded by its matrices of seemingly illogical, impenetrable rules. (To design is human, to play divine.)

"I don't want to be here," Pikul whines. "We're stumbling around in the unformed world not knowing what the rules are, or if there are any rules. We're under attack from forces that want to destroy us but that we don't understand."

Allegra, with Leigh's eyes wide and smart: "Yeah. That's my game."

"It's a game that's going to be difficult to market," he says, understating Dimension's dilemma.

Allegra's shrug: "It's a game everyone's already playing."

Tell me the truth. Are we still in the game?

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