Buzzed on metaphysics

David Cronenberg's "Existenz" imagines a dangerously exotic video game -- and it looks a lot like life.

Published April 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Jennifer Jason Leigh's performances have gotten so twitchy over the years that
it's a nice surprise to find her cast as a twitchy genius in "Existenz" and
coming across as sort of ... normal, except for the bizarre hairdo. But then David Cronenberg's
bad trips often have a way of leveling his actors, of reducing them to cogs in
his complicated plots -- an accusation that used to be raised (unjustly) against Alfred
Hitchcock, whose grisly sensibilities intersect with
Cronenberg's at several points. Cronenberg has certainly
pulled some fine performances out of his actors -- Jeff Goldblum's in "The Fly" and Jeremy Irons' in "Dead
Ringers" jump to mind -- but for the most part his movies are so cold that what
you take away from them has little to do with the passion of actors. If
Cronenberg had cast, say, Susan Sarandon instead of Samatha Eggar in "The Brood,"
or Rob Lowe instead of James Spader in "Crash," I doubt that
we would remember the movies all that differently, and that's probably safe to say
of even his most actorly films (whereas it's all but impossible to imagine Hitchcock's
"The Lady Vanishes" or "Notorious" with a different cast).

What you take away from a Cronenberg movie, in other words, is Cronenberg, and
though Leigh and Jude Law and Willem Dafoe and Ian Holm all do
perfectly creditable work here, they're essentially props, or more accurately,
pawns in an elaborate game. Whereas "The
imagines the physical world as a computer program, "Existenz"
imagines it as a virtual-reality game. Each challenges its audience to
distinguish the virtual world from the "real" one, and leaves it buzzed on metaphysics.

Of the two movies, "Existenz" is smaller and, in a clever, appealing way, tackier; its
tackiness is a calculated aspect of the slightly off game world it puts forth. The bigger
difference, though, is that in "Existenz," Cronenberg, who both wrote and directed, is
out to fool you -- to give you just enough information to let you figure out what's
going on, and then bluff you out of using it. The movie, in other words, is a game

The game within the film is set in a familiar-looking, not too distant future.
Players access it from a squishy organic pod that is the creation of Allegra
Geller, the gifted game master Leigh plays. Machines as such have seldom
interested Cronenberg all that much; he is a poet of flesh and its mutations, its
diseases, and Allegra's pod is a machine made of flesh (amphibian parts,
actually). It plugs, via umbilical-like cords, into human ports that are
themselves classic Cronenberg. Remember the venereal worms that wriggle in and
out of bodies in "They Came From Within," the little toothed penis in Marilyn
Chambers' armpit in "Rabid" and the TV that James Woods massages out of his
abdomen in "Videodrome"? The intersection of the sexual, the mechanical and the
monstrous has always obsessed Cronenberg, and these ports -- artificial sphincters on
the lower spine that nobody seems to be able to keep a moistened finger out of --
fall somewhere between the erotic and the awful.

Once the players are plugged into the pod, they enter the game's virtual world;
each one takes on the role of a different character, enjoying some freedom to
maneuver within pre-set parameters of behavior. (Law finds himself helplessly
eating a bunch of disgusting animal parts because the game can't advance until
his character has followed his programmed course.) For the audience, though, the
game is: How much of all this is a game? Which of the exotic dangers that
the characters find themselves up against are virtual, and which are real?

It's a pleasure to find the brooding Cronenberg turning out a trifle, even if
it's a dark trifle. Perhaps the lack of real horror in "Existenz" has something
to do with his confident control here. Cronenberg has always been a brilliant
idea man, but he falters in the follow-through; too often his inspirations peter
out in contrived or irrelevant endings. Here, though, he's turned out a neatly
tied-up package, and if there are any holes in the plot I didn't spot them. It's
a playful introduction to Cronenberg for the nervous and the squeamish, and for
the attentive, the director makes the challenge fair and fun: He gives you a
50-50 chance of beating him at his crafty game.

By Craig Seligman

Craig Seligman is the author of "Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me," and an editor at Absolute New York.

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