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Innards Sanctum

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 1999

  Movie Critic

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

David Cronenberg
Jennifer Jason Leigh;
Jude Law;
Willem Dafoe;
Ian Holm;
Don McKellar;
Sarah Polley;
Callum Keith Rennie
Running Time:
1 hour, 30 minutes
Contains macabre, disturbing material, including violence, sexual situations and nudity
In one of the gentler moments in "eXistenZ," someone pulls a gun made of gristle and sinew and other moist, fresh animal parts. For bullets, it shoots teeth.

Crazy? Crazy is too mild a word by far to describe the twisted worm at play inside the skull of the Canadian director David ("Dead Ringer," "The Fly") Cronenberg, whose fantasy pathologies make most of Krafft-Ebing's "Psychopathia Sexualis" seem like episodes of "The Brady Bunch." And that craziness is given full vent in the vomitorium called "eXistenZ."

Certainly the most certifiably insane movie since John Woo's "Hard-Boiled," "eXistenZ," nutty random capital letters and all, is a wretched excess in a key of primal disgust that will leave you numb with disbelief.

As it turns out, the last few seconds of the movie justify the jejune stupidity and grossness that have come before, the 89 minutes of stilted dialogue, disgusting spectacle and frying-pan-flat performances. That's a little long to wait; moreover, I suspect that those of you with several thousand hours of flying time logged behind the joy stick of a PlayStation will have seen through it far earlier than I did. Still, you have to ask: If a movie is wretched for 89 minutes and brilliant for one, is it a wretched movie or a brilliant one?

Essentially a drama of the electronic game world, it follows as genius-level game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is persecuted, a la Salman Rushdie, by holier-and-deadlier-than-thou fundamentalists who mean to kill her on the theory that God's reality is holy, while man's is blasphemy. At a focus-group test of her newest, latest thing, which is called "eXistenZ," she catches a hollow-point tooth in the shoulder.

But first, a word from our sponsor, Antenna Research, the world's leading purveyor of cyber-bio amusement. Here at Antenna, we're not talking your average blow-the-aliens-to-spaghetti Nintendo deal. This isn't Klingon Honor Guard or anything like that. These are biomechanical "organic games"; their impulses are controlled by a MetaFlesh Gamepod, a play station somehow constructed of living animal tissue that looks like a placenta with a toggle switch. It transfers its imagery to the human nervous system by way of the UmbyCord, which looks like a rattail and runs from the pod to the bioport (don't ask what it most resembles) drilled into your spine. So in some sense, the gamer's body has interfaced with a quasi-living organism. Progress is our most important product!

Leaking blood and plaque, Allegra must flee, and with a marketing geek – oh, sorry for the redundancy – she hits the road. This poor boy, one Ted (played by Jude Law, who appeared in "Wilde"), soon develops a crush on her, and yearns to download a cyberhunk of burnin' love to her bioport, that bad boy! He even agrees to let a scungy, wild-eyed Willem Dafoe, in another of his "How can I best destroy my career?" roles, pop him his own spinal bioport with an Insertion Gun that resembles the kind of pneumatic rivet blasters used to staple the wings to B-17s. Ted clearly has a bad love jones.

So does Cronenberg, but it's with troubling ideas of insertion, penetration and the revealed inner landscape. He yearns to enter the temple of the body, to show us things only cops and firefighters and emergency room crews normally see. This is a disturbed individual. Genius, yes, but don't let him play in, near or around the same solar system as your kids.

Anyhow, as Allegra and Ted flee, events from the game keep happening in reality. Hmmm. Something nutty's going on here. Why, maybe it's not reality but "reality." Or even "reality." You can tell because there are great big gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts all over the place. Cronenberg is also obsessed with animal viscera; the most unwatchable sequence of this film takes the fleeing gamers to a MetaFlesh Gamepod production facility in the woods, where genetic mutants are dissected and their body parts harvested for assemblage into game units.

Of course, all this is strictly unnecessary, except that it allows the perversely inclined Canadian director to indulge his passion for making the earnest bourgies in the audience blow their cookies into their decaf cappuccinos. If that's your cup of tea, enter and enjoy, but remember: Barf bags are mandatory, smelling salts are optional, and the seat belt sign is always lit. It's going to be a puky evening.

"eXistenZ" is rated R for extreme gore, mostly from slaughtered animals. Run time: 90 minutes.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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