eXistenZ has become one of director David Cronenberg’s underappreciated works, and deserves a reappraisal, which this new release should help bring about. The film came out in 1999 during the height of “cyberpunk” cinema: The Matrix, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, π and even Fight Club (which isn’t normally considered a sci-fi film) falls into that category. It also owes a massive debt to the work of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, who Cronenberg became a massive fan of during the ’80s. Writer Jonathan Lethem, the editor of many collected volumes of PKD’s work, is on record as saying that to some extent eXistenZ is the closest anybody has gotten to the feeling of a PKD novel in cinematic form.
Cronenberg worked on an adaptation of PKD’s short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale in the late ’80s, and that’s what made him fall in love with the writer’s work. He wasn’t really aware of it previously, because with the exception of William S. Burroughs and Vladimir Nobokov’s forays into the genre he had stopped reading Sci-fi in the mid ’50s, when PKD was just starting to get published. Cronenberg walked off the film after co-writer Ron Shusett told him “You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version,” which baffled the director until Ron Shusett told him “We want to do Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.” Then Cronenberg understood exactly the kind of film they wanted, and that his vision would not be compatible with that. This left Cronenberg wanting to do a PKD adaptation, but what he basically did was come up with his own story that shares many similarities to PKD’s work.
The film also stems out of an interview that Cronenberg did for a Canadian magazine with the writer Salman Rushdie. Rushdie was currently in hiding from when a fatwā was put on his head after he wrote the infamous The Satanic Verses. Despite it finally blowing over to some extent, he still needs to be careful. Cronenberg thought the idea of a fatwā against a video game developer would be an interesting concept for a sci-fi film.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the brilliantly named Allegra Geller (Cronenberg always comes up with great names), who is the video game designer. She is at a focus group testing out a new game, which is where the eXistenZ of the title comes from, but an assassin with a bizarre gun made out of bones attempts to kill her. She is soon on the run with her security guard, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), who in reality is just a PR nerd without a gameport in his spine. He needs one to play the game, and they both need to play the game because only Geller has a copy and it might be damaged. Soon a surreal odyssey within the game ensues.
Cronenberg at this point was finally saying goodbye to the body horror and science fiction he made his name with, unless he does another such film in the future (he has suggested that he may have retired.) It owes a lot to Videodrome, which had a fairly similar plot but was about videotapes and television instead of video games. The idea of virtual reality gaming and how excessive TV-watching and gameplay could rot your mind was very much in the public consciousness at the time. PKD had also dealt with media manipulation back in the ’60s and ’70s, so that played into Cronenberg’s concept as well.
The acting in Cronenberg’s films tends to be slightly stilted, which is intentional and adds an extra element of surrealism, especially with this film. Jennifer Jason Leigh is an actress who can put some life into even the worst material, so she is great. The Brits in the cast—Jude Law, Ian Holm and Christopher Eccleston—do dodgy accents, but stick with it, as there is a point, which will reveal itself in the narrative. Sarah Polley also appears in a small but important role. It’s the only time Cronenberg directed the great Canadian actress, which is surprising as he has acted in some projects she was involved with. Willem Dafoe also has a fun role of a gas attendant who is called… Gas.
The Turbine release for this underrated slice of Cronenberg is the definitive version release thus far. It includes three separate commentary tracks, including one with David Cronenberg. The main documentary is a really insightful feature about Cronenberg’s longtime production designer Carol Spier. It’s been on most DVDs of the film before, but it’s an excellent doc. The rest of the features are from the EPK kit, which are short interviews with Cronenberg and the cast and some making-of featurettes. The whole thing comes in a lovely mediabook with an excellent new cover design.