David Cronenberg’s prophetic warning about virtual reality

Jennifer Jason Leigh in one of her best performances portrays video game developer Allegra Geller in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. She plays Allegra Geller, a game designer who is known everywhere and who is a living legend to her followers, all addicted to her virtual reality games. For years she has been working on a new game and game system, one to change all the rules. This puts her at risk because the other gaming manufacturers are literally at war with each other.

The surprisingly underrated film is themed around revolution and civil war that, combined with its vision of virtual reality, advancing technologies and the clash of political ideologies, eXistenZ one of the most disturbingly prescient films of Cronenberg’s career.


Cronenberg makes a video game in eXistenZ

When the movie starts, there’s a research and development test for some lucky winners to be the first to discover the new eXistenZ system. But there are immediate problems. Someone smuggles an organic gun through the metal detectors, a weapon that resembles a strange sea creature and uses human teeth as bullets. Allegra is being assassinated by individuals in the Realist movement, who believe her play is demonic and dangerous to reality. Ted (a great Jude Law), a security guard, sets off in a car with Allegra while they go into hiding, on the run from their would-be hitmen. No-one can be trusted.

She has developed a new game system known as eXistenZ, a virtual reality game in which the player has a bioport attached to her or his back through a hole drilled in the spine, and a pod device that hooks directly into that hole. The human essentially serves as a long USB port and the meaty monstrous looking game system accesses the user’s memories, desires, wishes and fears; it is an amalgamation of man and machine. Only these devices are not made of fully synthetic components. What makes these game portals different (and controversial) is that they are living, breathing things.

They are created by breeding certain types of mutated fish-reptile hybrids that grow up and become living respirators that can be harmed and killed, and rescued by surgical intervention. They can get sick, and in one scene when a portal is broken, two doctors perform a gruesome operation to save the organic game device. Ted, while on the run with Allegra (who treats her bioport like it’s her baby), gets such a hole in his back and experiences Cronenberg’s vision of virtual reality for the first time, and he can’t tell the difference.

Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh Go Virtual in eXistenZ

The devices, the act of placing a fleshy pod in one’s back, and the whole concept of eXistenZ is quintessentially Cronenberg, reminiscent of his films such as videodrome, where the organic and the inorganic can unite and be one. Like videodrome and his new movie Crimes of the future, eXistenZ offers a world of competitive politics and philosophies competing for technology, ideologies, art and entertainment. Allegra survives another attack, and it is clear that there are powerful interests, either aligned with the Realist movement or rival companies, to destroy her and her game.

Related: David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future Is Too Big for Cannes Audiences

When Ted first connects to a bioport, whole new worlds open up to him. This, in turn, makes it impossible to tell which is the real world and which is the simulated artificial world. It’s like when Neo from The Matrix takes the pill that wakes him up from the false reality he had previously lived. This is a very dangerous concept because then we can never really know if this world is the real world or if we are just characters in someone else’s game.

Allegra’s realistic enemies denounce her virtual reality devices primarily for this reason, which explains why there are spies everywhere, spies willing to kill and die for a cause to which they are devoted. Like the thin line between virtual and real reality, it’s nearly impossible to tell who’s on your side and who isn’t.

Philip K. Dick meets body horror

Besides a typical Crronenberg “body horror” film, this is also a Philip K. Dick-esque film in which reality itself is questioned. While Cronenberg wrote the script himself and it is based on nothing, like the work of Philip K. Dick, eXistenZ presents a world in which you cannot trust what you see and experience. It’s like in the philosophical allegory of Plato’s cave, where a man in a cave can only perceive shadows and thus thinks that shadows are all that exists. This is the dilemma faced by the players in the film: assuming their world is real and more than an illusion, rather than just shadows made up of a reality we can’t access.

In a telling scene, Ted kills the manager of a Chinese restaurant. The gun he uses is made up of pieces of the grotesque fish he is eating, and he shoots the man twice in the face and kills him. Since Ted often expresses confusion about when he is in the virtual reality world and when he is in the real world, he may have committed an actual murder.

Virtual Reality is the ultimate disconnection from reality, an active dissociation. Plug in and the world you knew is gone, now populated by virtual characters that aren’t real. One can ultimately spend a lot of time maintaining this facade, living in the non-reality where we and our lives are different and more meaningful and important. This virtual world and the derealization of the senses leads to a lack of the most basic need to communicate and be intimate.

Related: Best David Cronenberg Movies, Ranked

In this way, director David Cronenberg comes closest to editing a Philip K. Dick book, putting the rules of consciousness and time on hold. Very few filmmakers have been able to turn one of his books into a great movie because they deal with so many philosophical ideas and political ideologies that reject reality and self-concept. Cronenberg had previously made two films based on books that didn’t seem adaptable – William S. Burroughs’ nude lunch and JG Ballard’s Crash. Both films are excellent and prove that Cronenberg has some kind of magical power that allows him to film the unfilmable.

The disease of ideology and entertainment in eXistenZ

Illness is another idea discussed in eXistenZ (and Crimes of the future). Some players of Allegra’s virtual reality game may inadvertently cause the game a disease because it runs on human power; a game pod can become contaminated even by ideology. Conversely, the film asks whether entertainment can be a vessel of dangerous ideologies, not just video games and virtual reality, but also movies and literature, not to mention technology.

David Cronenberg’s film is a work of grotesque genius. Some of the animals, game devices and sea creatures we see are disgusting and brilliantly constructed with some of the director’s grossest special effects. The way he films the virtual world of the game is brilliant, creating an eerie valley where everything is just a little bit wrong. This 1999 film would be Cronenberg’s last proper “body horror” film in 23 years (until Crimes of the future), and finds him on the perfect nexus between the gory horror of his earlier films and the more psychological dramas like spider, oriental promisesand A history of violence.

eXistenZHowever, Cronenberg is at his best and his best, going deep into his unbecoming vision in top form. Welcome to the meat revolution.

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