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In this episode: eXistenZ

That David Cronenberg is quite the crazy cakes. But anyone who's seen any of his movies knows this already. I remember a high school friend getting sick while watching The Fly. She didn't actually throw up, but she did have to leave the theater. It may be comforting to know that eXistenZ is not quite as gruesome as The Fly or even Naked Lunch, but it certainly has its moments. Besides being gross, the movie is somewhat amusing and has many clever moments. The unfortunate thing is eXistenZ doesn't pull through completely. It's like a gross-out episode of The Outer Limits, and no episode of The Outer Limits would make a completely satisfying movie. Unless you're just in it for the gross-out.

What eXistenZ (pronounced EX-is-TENZ) does get right is the strange, detached world of video game adventures. eXistenZ's characters are flat. The situations they find themselves in are ludicrous and poorly written. The "interactive" story is only random as much as a ski slope is random: you can ski one way or the other, back and forth, but you end up at the bottom anyway. The virtual reality game feeling of the movie is perfect because that's what the movie's about, a fact that can not be truly appreciated until after the movie's over. But, hey, if dull characters and silly plot machinations make your run-of-the-mill video game dull, how is that supposed to help a movie? I am perhaps being a little harsh here, because David C. should be congratulated for creating such a fake-feeling world on purpose. But the movie needs to be more intelligent, more deeply critical of its subject than it is. Now it just stands as a goofy, kitschy, gory exploration of fabricated realities. And I think he created a better fake-feeling world in Naked Lunch.

David C. wrote this one from scratch, and his points are interesting and well-taken, but already dated, what with movies like The Matrix and Dark City already out there, and the really dumb-looking The Thirteenth Floor on its way. Compared to The Matrix (or even Dark City, which was a huge disappointment), eXistenZ's take on the "What is real?" question is a little simplistic. It's not really a surprising movie, just shocking in it's grotesque vision. Like any video game, clues are sprinkled throughout the movie to key you in to what's going to happen, which is why nothing's really a surprise. Jennifer's character has a momentary behavioral glitch? That obviously means something. Jude's character doesn't pursue that glitch as odd? That adds to the meaning. I was definitely intrigued throughout, feeling I was in for some big twist at the end. But the twist, once it shows up, is not nearly as complicated or clever as I had been hoping for. It was still fun to watch, but I felt cheated.

I want to talk about the actors, but I don't know what to say, really. Since they portray flat people, there's not much challenge for them here. I do have to say that Jennifer Jason Leigh always bugs me. She's creepy. She's dead. I don't ever get much from her. And since her role as a well-known and worshipped game designer in eXistenZ requires her to act nearly brain-dead, I guess I should say she's good. But she just creeps me out. Bleagh. Jude Law, the young man who's whisked away on this peculiar adventure, is pretty good. You can see the intelligence working behind his eyes, but of course the role is nothing to break his acting backbone over. The movie also contains Willem Dafoe and Ian Holm. Ah, Ian. He loves these bizarre, eXistentiaL sci-fi flicks.

If you don't mind being grossed out, I guarantee you'll go for the mutated amphibians, who are bred and slaughtered for their organs; the dingy, out-of-place Chinese restaurant in the forest and the meal Jude eats there; the bioport, a physical hole in a person's back into which the fleshy UmbyCord plugs directly to the spine; The Game-Pod itself, a writhing, undulating thing that you caress to operate; and the weirdest, coolest thing, a gristle gun, made of skeletal remains, that shoots human teeth (hope I didn't give away too much there). eXistenZ is a great midnight movie if only for these things.

As an all-around movie, eXistenZ comes up short, but as a Cronenbergian spectacle, it passes okay. So you get to weigh both and see if you feel it's worth your time and effort. It's definitely not for everyone. In fact, you may really hate it. If you want, you can wait to see this one on video—it won't lose much, though again I say the theater is always better than the TV. One amusing thing to note is that this film is released by Dimension, which is part of Miramax, which is part of Disney. I love that. Just don't be looking for Mickey Mouse gristle gun toys at Kmart any time soon.





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©1999 Steven Lekowicz