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Heightened 'eXistenZ'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 1999

  Movie Critic


eXistenZ
In David Cronenberg's latest film, Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh make a perfectly odd couple. (Dimension)

Director:
David Cronenberg
Cast:
Jennifer Jason Leigh;
Jude Law;
Willem Dafoe;
Ian Holm;
Don McKellar;
Sarah Polley;
Callum Keith Rennie
Running Time:
1 hour, 30 minutes
R
Contains macabre, disturbing material, including violence, sexual situations and nudity
At last, we can put "Crash" behind us and enjoy David Cronenberg's brand new ride. "eXistenZ" is a triumphant return to the icky, otherworldly eerieness that graced such earlier Cronenberg works as "Scanners," "Videodrome" and "Dead Ringers."

For that, I am extremely grateful, although I will be sure to keep my distance from the Canadian filmmaker, lest he puncture my spine; shove an unhygienic, tube-like receptacle into the fleshy orifice; and plug me into a virtual reality game of disconcerting proportion.

If I were a character in "eXistenZ," which imagines a futuristic, cyberworld where amazingly sophisticated virtual games have become something of a religion, I would have to undergo such a process.

In this society, people get "bioported," so they can "plug in" to the latest game system of ecstatic hyper-reality. They tap directly into their nervous systems, by connecting their "bioports" to flesh-textured pods (containing the game software, as it were) by means of an umbilical-like "UmbyCord." While they lie in a hypnotic, semiconscious state, their minds traipse through a realm of limitless possibilities.

Which is why Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), inventor of the cutting-edge game known as eXistenZ, has become something of a superstar.

But as the socially withdrawn game creator takes the stage to introduce her new game before adoring game-players, a fanatical intruder called Yevgeny Nourish (Don McKellar) rises to his feet. Striding up to Allegra, he yells invectives, raises his gun and . . .

Let us stop for a moment and consider this gun. It's a weapon like no other. Made of bone and resembling a putrid, shaggy animal, it fires teeth rather than bullets into its victim. Welcome to Cronenberg territory. Wounded from the attack, Allegra escapes the ensuing mayhem, with the assistance of an intern called Ted Pikul (Jude Law) who was supposed to be in charge of security.

Ducking out from other potential assailants, they hole up in a motel where Allegra discovers her game system – a fleshy (or "metaflesh"), kidney-shaped pod with nipple shaped control buttons – is damaged.

The only way to assess the damage is to have someone who is neurologically "friendly" to the game, plug in with her. Unfortunately, Ted has no bioport. I have to say I'm right with Ted when he declares: "I have this phobia about having my body penetrated surgically."

When Allegra convinces him that getting a back jack will change his reality for the better, Ted agrees to get bioported. The man to perform this bizarre procedure is Gas (Willem Dafoe), a service station operator, who reaches for the appropriate receptacle in a dirty drawer in his workshop.

"Allegra Geller, you changed my life," says Gas when he recognizes Allegra.

"What was your life like before?" asks Ted.

Gas replies that he still operated a gas station, "but only on the most pathetic level of reality."

I love this movie.

That's more than enough story for you. Ted and Allegra plug into eXistenZ where, among many things, they will discover mutated amphibians that look as if they wandered off the set of "Jurassic Park"; another virtual game known as "Chinese Restaurant," which is more about slaughtering the chef than ordering noodles; and new id-like aspects of their personality that come out only when playing the game.

"I find this disgusting, but I can't help myself," says Ted, as he digs into a plateful of – well, you can discover what's on the menu for yourself.

"eXistenZ" traces a delicate, humorous line between light satire and heavy forebodings. It was ostensibly inspired by the plight of author Salman Rushdie, another creator who must remain in constant hiding from his enemies.

But the movie also seems to be a parable about Hollywood, as it makes disparaging remarks about good virtual games (like eXistenZ, of course) and bad ones, which have cheaply created characters. It can be amusingly self-referential too. Cronenberg's "Crash" gets a wink when, at one point, Ted and Allegra discover a reality game system called "Hit by a Car," whose merchandising line calls it "the game that puts you in the driver's seat."

The special effects, headed by Jim Isaac, are outstanding. And as the human effects in this multilayered, para-reality drama, Law and Leigh make a perfect couple. British actor Law seems like a relatively innocuous companion at first. But you get the feeling something strange will emerge from that wide-eyed, slightly neurotic presence.

Leigh, of course, is weird in everything she's in. A movie like this is her home. When she manipulates that pod in a flagrantly sexual manner, her face experiencing a sensuous ecstasy, you're not quite sure how to feel. She's edgy all right. Watching those two odd birds, and experiencing this game-within-a-game structure, you're never sure on which level of reality you're supposed to be operating. You've slipped into a waking dream without a map, but at least you have a really good script.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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