ARID ENCHANTMENT

A film in which the connection between audience andactor is all too virtual.

JENNIFER JASON LEIGH is Allegra Geller, "the game pod goddess herself," as she is introduced to a room full of rabid virtual-reality gamers whose fanaticism puts Star Wars diehards to shame. All self-conscious shuffling, she's come out of seclusion to test her latest design, eXistenZ, on this hand-picked crowd who all plug in for a communal ride. Suddenly, an assassin shoots Allegra (the semi-circle of jacked-in players double over in unison), and corporate peon Ted Pikul (Jude Law), playing security guard for the night, rushes her out the door and into the middle of nowhere.

eXistenZ

directed by David Cronenberg starring Jude Law,

Jennifer Jason Leigh opens April 23 at Varsity

Allegra has become the target in a sprawling conspiracy (there's a $5 million bounty on her head), but she's more concerned with finding a safe place to play her game. Gaming virgin Ted reluctantly becomes her partner and our VR guide to a world that looks just like ours but for a few peculiarities, as when characters go into a "game loop" and spin in repetitions that give them the flavor of mechanical figures on a Disney theme park ride. As the two work their way through the game, they find striking parallels to their real-world predicament and continue to plug in despite being hounded by bounty hunters, as if the game provides some clues to their predicament.

The glib answer is: Well, of course it does—this is a Cronenberg film for Christ's sake! Elements from "real life" intrude on their game, and characters from the game seem to cross into the real world. The line between what's real and what's virtual becomes blurred: "He's only a game character," Allegra remarks after killing someone. Ted shoots back: "What if he's real?"

CRONENBERG'S FIRST ORIGINAL screenplay since 1983's Videodrome puts us back into his special brand of science fiction: the sexualization of all sensory experience, bio-technology that fuses flesh with mechanics, murky conspiracies, disease, mutation, and the shifting dimensions of realities. eXistenZ is a virtual reality game so realistic it threatens to become real—or, as Cronenberg himself describes it: "It's the game made flesh." The bio-pods are fleshy biomechanical creations with more than a passing resemblance to a human breast (you start the game by tweaking the nipple) jacked directly into an artificially created orifice at the base of the player's spine through an umbilical-cord-like cable. When Allegra and Ted suddenly kiss, it's a function of the game program, not their own impulses, while outside of eXistenZ they stimulate one another by caressing and licking the bio-port cavities in the base of their spines: Virtual sex takes on a whole new meaning.

Like Videodrome, eXistenZ explores how overpowering artificial stimulus comes back to affect physical reality. But where we were plugged into James Woods' subjective experience in a screamingly visceral way in Videodrome, Cronenberg now takes the chilly cinematic distance that worked so well in Crash (1996), making us observers rather than players in this game. That has its advantages in a film so layered in details that you almost have to be on the outside looking in to catch the nuanced clues woven into the fabric of the cinematic landscape. But by removing us from the characters on almost every level, he turns them into simple game characters rather than psychologically complete fictional creatures.

Cronenberg knows exactly what he's doing—every moment of eXistenZ feels completely under his control. The delightfully clever conclusion wraps up every seeming contradiction and conspiratorial wink, and warps interpretation into an entirely new framework. But it begs the issue: If eXistenZ is really about disconnection from reality, this becomes so disconnected that there finally is no baseline. It makes for a fine post-modern philosophical stance, but an uninvolving drama.

 
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