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A Fleshy Matrix

Dec 14, 1999 (Updated Apr 4, 2000)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:It's faster, funnier and (slightly) better than "The Matrix." The special effects are uniquely Cronenberg's.

Cons:Several two-headed lizard-frog-salamanders were harmed during the making of this film.

A ski boot that doubles as a purse, a two-headed lizard-frog-salamander, a gun made of animal bones that fires teeth instead of bullets. Welcome to the brain of David Cronenberg.

There are few film directors working today who have such a unique vision that you can identify their work after only watching a few bizarre minutes. David Lynch is one. David Cronenberg is the other. (What is it about us guys named David?)

With the exception of "The Dead Zone," I’ve never been a huge fan of the Canadian director’s work. Movies like "Scanners" and "The Fly" dwelled a little too much on the ooey-gooey, squishy-organ, saliva-dripping sort of special effects that call too much attention to themselves. And "Crash"….well, "Crash" was just too way out there for me.

But now, hot on the heels of "The Matrix," comes "eXistenZ." Yes, it’s squishy and, yes, it’s definitely out there in the ozone, but…I liked it. In fact, I found it to be a much more entertaining film than the popular "Matrix."

It’s impossible not to compare the two, just as you can’t help debating the relative merits of "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Thin Red Line." Both "eXistenZ" and "The Matrix" plug viewers into worlds that exist in that blurry limbo between the Land of Reality and the Kingdom of Video Games. We’re never quite sure what we’re seeing—is it live or is it Nintendo? At some point (hopefully at the beginning of the movie), we just have to sit back and surrender to wherever the directors take us.

In Cronenberg’s movie, eXistenZ is the name of the latest virtual-reality game from top designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). By the way, the name of the game is pronounced like the beginning of the word "existentialism" and some of the concepts in the film are as heady as that philosophical movement. I also thought it interesting that the capital letter "Y" was missing from the title. Hmm, ponder that one awhile…

Back to our existence—uh, eXistenZ…At the start of the movie, while unveiling her new game, Geller is gunned down by an assassin (he of the tooth-shooting bone gun), but she is saved by a security guard named Ted Pikul (Jude Law). Pikul is an ordinary fellow who, despite his interest in video games, has never even played one of Geller’s creations. He doesn’t even have a bio-port, for goodness’ sake.

Did I forget to mention the bio-ports? Hold onto your Segas, ladies and gentlemen, this is where it really starts to get weird, Cronenberg-style. To play games in the future, the total experience means getting fitted with a bio-port—a small plug surgically implanted at the base of your spine. In "The Matrix," you’ll remember, a similar device was drilled into the back of the neck. Once you’re bio-ported, you plug into the game pad, a rubbery thing that looks like a pair of breasts you’d find in an adult novelty story. The pad is hooked into your body via a link that Cronenberg makes no pains to hide is a thick umbilical cord. The sexual overtones of "eXistenZ" permeate the film’s distinct vision. I also liked the statement that Cronenberg makes about our culture’s addiction to video-game escapism. For some of us—like my teenage son who can play Nintendo 64 for hours on end, quitting only when his fingernails grow too long to manipulate the keypad—a game controller made out of flesh is the next logical step.

Anyway, back to our eXistenZialism….After Pikul saves Geller, she convinces him to get fitted for a bio-port so he can play her game. Things go a little wrong—he neuro-surges and short-circuits the flesh-controller (how’s that again?), and the two of them are thrust into virtual-reality as characters who spend most of their time trying to figure out the game.

You’ll probably spend most of your time trying to figure out this movie, but (like "The Matrix"), it’s best just to sit back and let it come at you. You can sort out the pieces later. Like Geller says at one point: "There’s a very weird reality-bleed-through effect happening here. I’m not sure I get it."

"eXistenZ" moves at a swift trot from the first tooth-bullet all the way to the rousing climax (which includes perhaps the greatest last line in years). In between, Cronenberg makes sure your interest never dips, your attention never wavers. "I’m warning you, it’s going to be a wild ride," Geller tells Pikul just before she plugs the umbilical cord into his bio-port. And indeed, it is. But it’s also a very fun ride. There’s a lot more humor in "eXistenZ" than in "The Matrix." No serious, wooden-faced Keanu Reeves are allowed in here. No mystical, pseudo-religious mythology, either. Instead, we get Pikul saying at a desperate moment: "I want to put the game on pause!" Law is excellent as the baffled Pikul who enters a world without boundaries. You may remember him as the cold, distant genetic creation in "Gattaca." Here, he’s a wide-eyed ingenue getting his first taste of alternative reality.

My advice? If you’ve already matrixed and liked it, then get your bio-port on down to the video store and plug into a whole new eXistenZ.

Recommend this product? Yes

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