This is a trippy little film. I know we, as Cronenberg fans, gush over the writer director’s intelligence and the complex themes he explores in his cinema. It’s layered, it’s often profound and even ahead of its time on occasion. Sometimes however, it’s simply best to take a concept, in this case massive online multiplayer games, and have a blast with it. Such is the case with Existenz.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra, a cutting edge video game designer who one evening offers a very privileged and exclusive group of video gamers an opportunity to try out her latest project. Once seated in the anonymous looking room, the gamers are thrilled to see their idol Allegra in the flesh as she explains Existenz, a new, more immersive kind of multiplayer game in which players physically act out their respective characters in a virtual world, like actors would on a movie set. Players are simply required to connect themselves to their gaming consoles through a small device which has been implanted into the lower part of their spines (standard procedure to partake in online games in the film’s universe). Allegra has developed a new gaming console specifically for Existenz however, one that cannot go public just yet. Before the test can commence, the event is high jacked by a spy who makes an attempt on Allegra’s life with an odd organic pistol comprised of human bones and flesh and equipped with teeth for bullets!
Allegra flees the scene with one of her employees, Ted Pikkul (Jude Law), who de facto becomes her bodyguard of sorts for the remainder of their misadventure. Ted is rather ill equipped to fill the role of bodyguard however, being somewhat of a cowardly shrimp. Given the circumstances, they now have to save themselves as well as protect Existenz from the forces who wish to destroy it. Allegra has in her possession the one Existenz gaming console which holds a full version of the game, albeit with some loose screws that still require work. When the console sustains damage after being tampered with by a slightly eerie gas station manager Gas (Willem Dafoe), Allegra must save her work at all costs by testing it with Ted, the latter whom has never experienced an online game, but he’ll discover just how immersive they can be.
Existenz is David Cronenberg’s Total Recall (a film he was originally scheduled to direct, ironically enough). It contains some very smart elements which fans of the director crave for, but is complimented with a sense of fun and mystery. The films was released in 1999, a time when online multiplayer games were not as massive as they are today. Starcraft, Warcraft and other such games offered players popular online experiences, but both pale in comparison to what gamers can choose from today in 2009. Online games which offer customizable and extraordinarily vast and complex virtual worlds to explore are a hallmark of the gaming industry, which wasn’t the case a decade ago. The film Gamer starring Gerard Butler has a storyline in which characters actively participate in a massive online death match, but Existenz got there first…10 years earlier. In a sense, one could argue that Existenz was a bit of a novelty upon its release. Well, there is that one death scene in that Nightmare on Elm Street film in which a dude gets killed in a video game, but Existenz concentrated on a very specific type of game, one that is time consuming and as well as energy consuming… A critic (a role I very much enjoy acting out) who reviews the film for the first time today has the benefit of hindsight regarding the development of the online gaming industry. Existenz does effectively tap into some of the principal strengths and cons of these kinds of games. They are impressively detailed and invite players to participate in sophisticated co-op gameplay, often any way they see fit given the highly customizable options. Conversely, they can be tremendously demanding on the player involved as has been stated already. People can invest a lot of effort into accomplishing whatever goals the game challenges them with. Coming back to the real world can feel less appealing the more time is spent in the virtual world. There are moments when Allegra and Ted think they have exited Existenz, but are unsure as to whether this is in fact the case, which is an interesting twist on the fact that some real life gamers do indeed have trouble separating their online lives from their real world ones. Or maybe Cronenberg is merely trying to twist the knobs of the plot in an attempt to confuse the viewer. He can be funny like that at times. There are some neat touches that should have gamers smiling however. Early in their online adventure, Allegra notices how some of the game characters come off as a bit stiff and have stale dialogue. Anyone who has played a game which featured poor dialogue or voice acting can relate, of that I’m sure. Another scene has Allegra and Ted guessing the correct line of dialogue to deliver in order for their virtual counterpart to reciprocate by providing information that would advance the storyline, similar to how many puzzles players can encounter in a multitude of role playing games.
The film handles another element in a very interesting way, although the manner in which it is dealt with should come as no surprise to fans of the director involved. I’m referring to the procedure by which players can enter Existenz. First, they are required to have to small plug in device implanted at the bottom of their spine, after which the gaming console can be connected. The gaming console itself even has a far more organic, natural look to it than a manufactured, plastic look. The character of Ted expresses strong reservations before receiving his implant. He squirms at the very thought of a piece of technology, or a piece o anything for that matter, entering his body. It’s a legitimate fear, not only because it sounds weird, but because of the many implications involved. How far are we, as humans, willing to go with technology enhancing our lives, particularly when there is a risk of losing ourselves to the very technology we created? Technology and humanity coming closer and closer together until…who knows what. The field of medicine has been an incredibly fertile area for researchers and developers to engage in the evolution of technology for humans. Artificial limbs, hearts, bones, and so much more. Implanted identification chips are an idea that sounds as if it belongs in a science fiction movie, but it gets tossed around every now and then. There are countless examples, real and fictional, of technology literally becoming a part of our bodies. There are pros and cons of course, but where should be limits be drawn? At what point have we gone too far in tampering with the human body (read: what makes us who we are and how do we preserve it)? Ted is the incarnation of the person who hesitates before such possibilities, who even resists them. Allegra embraces them and even plays a significant role in advancing that process. Interestingly, it is Allegra who appears as the more interesting character. She shows a confidence, a cockiness suggesting that it may be alright to give ourselves into this bold new world, at least in the universe of the film. Ted is a bit of a paranoid, always appearing as frightful and uncomfortable. He’s a bit pathetic, which makes his side of the argument rather unappealing. In any other film, Ted would be the intelligent sceptic who saves the day or the protagonist who learns through their adventure some sort of terrible truth about the technology being used. No, in Existenz Ted is an annoying scardy cat. Allegra, while displaying some more encouraging characteristics, is not very lively or energetic during the film, which can be a cause for concern. Is her blazé tone a sign that she has begun to lose herself in her games and extension in technology? Both characters represent important sides of an argument, but both are flawed in their own ways.
The world of the game features fascinating production design from Carol Spier, a long time member of the Cronenberg team. Each location feels very different and unique in teir own way, but always belonging to one single world, the world of Existenz. There are a host of bizarre little moments and visual cues that can only belong in a film from this particular director, such as the organic gaming console, and the pistol made of bone and flesh. The only disappointing visual in the film is a small computer generated creature Allegra and Ted encounter outside of a gas station. Its presence may be a clue that both are in fact already in the game since nothing had hinted at that possibility up until then, but the little bug doesn’t look very convincing. Regardless, Existenz remains one of the director’s more visually stimulating works.
Even if we look at Existenz merely as a piece of entertainment, it’s trippy fun. The characters are offbeat on occasion, the twists and turns between ‘reality’ and the world of Existenz get entangled with one another and it’s all pretty easy to sit back and enjoy if ‘thinking’ about the movie isn’t your cup of tea. I like the fact that the film works on both levels like that. Cronenberg may have produced better, more provocative and more memorable material, but I think Existenz is unfairly overlooked in the director’s cannon.