Tuesday, January 21, 2014

eXistenZ (1999): Bleeding Reality

eXistenZ (1999)
dir: David Cronenberg

In Spring 1999, things were OK in America enough to be wondering whether reality was reality. Not that this hadn't been an idea for years, but in mainstream wide-release cinema, this idea hadn't been explored in such techno-garble as in this series of three months.

The first release was in March. It was an Asian-inspired, anime-tinged sci-fi action blockbuster from two guys who had only had one then-little-known film to their credit. Those guys? The Wachowskis. The film? The Matrix. The Matrix posited that people were being used as batteries, and were also being fed a false reality to live in. And there was a real reality where humans were trying to overthrow a computer/robot dictatorship who were harvesting humans. The Matrix was a mega-success, obviously.

The third release, in May, was a remake of sorts. The Thirteenth Floor was an adaptation of the novel Simulcron-3, which had been previously adapted as a German miniseries in 1973 as World on a Wire (original: Welt am Dracht). The Thirteenth Floor concerned a 1999 company who has created a simulation of 1937 Los Angeles. The people in the 1937 simulation figure out that they are a simulation, then the 1999 simulation discovers the same thing. Then it pops up to 2024, which may be a simulation as well. The Thirteenth Floor made a modest $15million.

In between the two was a little-advertised, wider released, art house movie from the director of The Fly, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and the j.g. ballard adaptation Crash (not to be confused with the race-baiting Oscar-winning Crash). In April, David Cronenberg released eXistenZ, a movie about people who put themselves into alternate realities of other people's creations and lose track of their own. For a wide variety of reasons, eXistenZ made only $3m, but developed a cult following.

While the movies all deal with alternate, techno-realities bleeding into reality, and the question of what reality is anyways, ultimately they all have widely different approaches. The Matrix was all about humanity being forced into a techno-reality. eXistenZ is about people who willingly enter techno-realities in order to escape their real life. And, The Thirteenth Floor is about people who make techno-realities and techno-people in those techno-realities.

In eXistenZ, David Cronenberg begins the movie at a marketing event for a new game system, the titular eXistenZ. The game system is a fleshy pod monster with nobs you touch in certain ways to make it squirm and wiggle. The system is plugged directly into your body via umbilical cords that plug into bio-ports which have been inserted into the spine of the game players. Just as the game is beginning, a psychotic person from an underground Realist movement pulls out a gun made of flesh and bone, and shoots the game designer with a tooth.

From there, eXistenZ is a video game road trip with the game designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and a marketing guy, Ted Pikul (Jude Law). Allegra insists she has to port into her pod with somebody friendly to make sure the game isn't damaged, but Ted doesn't have a bioport. They have a series of encounters trying to get Ted a working bio-port, and then enter eXistenZ, the game. eXistenZ, the game, is blatantly styled after a game, with characters going into game loops, terrible characterizations, and quirks like being able to pause the game.

This game of eXistenZ has a goal of either saving or destroying the plant where they make more game pods, and deciding who is double crossing who and whether you want to be part of a inside-a-game Realist movement.

Once the game of eXistenZ seems to be over, there is a war outside the chalet where Allegra and Ted had been plugged in, and she defeats an opposing manufacturer. And then we're popped out to a previously-unseen reality where all the actors in the film have been plugged into transCendenZ, a video game with reality-based hardware. Allegra and Ted were just playing a game, and then they shoot the marketers of transCendenZ, screaming the victory call of eXistenZ in the name of a realism movement, and then nobody knows if they're in reality or in another game.

Much has been made about how games with a high enough factor of realism causes somebody to lose track of their reality thinking the whole world is a game. Or, about how Cronenberg was making a movie that was very much about body parts, invasion, penetration, and anal sex (without there being any actual sex in the movie).

Another layer that Cronenberg added was that this was a post-modern critique of video game story lines, and of itself. There are hints all over the place, including the tooth gun, that this isn't reality. But, he hammers it home when Jude Law makes a pointed remark asking whether Allegra things they can get a bioport at midnight at the local Country Gas Station, and the next shot is of a full-service gas station with the name "Country Gas Station." This simultaneously points out the obvious mundanity of some of video games' naming tropes (latest example is in Legend of Zelda: Link Between Worlds, where a bee guy's house is marked by a gigantic fucking bee on the front of the house), while also poking fun at itself for doing the same.

Throughout, Allegra is making comments about the characters being flat, having terrible arcs, and what reality actually is. It is a movie as a video game commenting on video games as movies. Increasingly, in the world of video games, things were still being pushed for more and more cinematic stories and more and more realism. One could look at the Trilobyte or Tex Murphy or Phantasmagoria series of games where filmed actors were integrated into computer generated sets in order to give the game a more cinematic feel.

As with computer games, the victims trapped within the realities of transCendenZ are willing victims who are testing out their next purchases. They are willingly subjecting themselves to these bleeding realities created by other people, if only for 20 minutes, or a few hours, or several days. Unlike World on a Wire, The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, or even Inception, the society losing their grip on their reality in eXistenZ are paying to enter these alternate realities. The society of eXistenZ leads more naturally to the society of Her, where our dreams and alternate people are marketed to us. The consciousnesses of the OSes in Her could be compared to The Thirteenth Floor consciousnesses which have been created in the simulations. But the consumers who are also losing themselves with these non-people are willing to do it. What Cronenberg is positing is that we are willingly going to march ourselves into a world lacking in reality, even as our subconscious is trying to make non-organic things like video game systems into organic ones in order to ease our mind about losing reality.

Ultimately, eXistenZ is a niche movie aimed at a then-increasingly-less niche market. It criticizes as it indulges, and is as modern as one could get. Characters criticize on themselves, and the world around them, and they have non-sex with technology. eXistenZ may still be eons away, but as a critique on the world at large, it is an especially condemning one. That it does it in a wild style of suspense thrillers, makes it a hilariously easy pill to swallow.

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