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Year: 1999
Language: English
Format: 35mm Colour
Runtime: 97 min
Director: David Cronenberg
Producer: Andras Hamori, Damon Bryant, Bradley Adams
Executive Producer: Robert Lantos
Writer: David Cronenberg
Cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky
Editor: Ronald Sanders
Sound: Glen Gauthier
Music: Howard Shore
Cast: Ian Holm, Don McKellar, Sarah Polley, Callum Rennie, Jennifer Leigh, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Eccleston
Production Company: Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc., Natural Nylon Entertainment, Serendipity Point Films

It is the near future and famous virtual-reality game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is participating in a highly-anticipated group demonstration of her new game, eXistenZ, from Antenna Research. The game demands that players plug game pods – fleshy, pulsating, organic orbs that resemble kidneys with nipples – into their bio-ports, vagina-like holes that have been surgically implanted in their spinal cords. But as the game gets underway, a would-be assassin draws an organic gun and shoots Allegra and an Antenna representative named Levi (Christopher Eccleston), before being killed by incognito security personnel. An Antenna publicist, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), quickly whisks Allegra to safety.

More concerned with her game pod than with her own life, Allegra insists she and Ted play eXistenZ to ensure the only existing copy has not been damaged. They enlist the services of a rural gas-station attendant (Willem Dafoe) to fit the reluctant Ted with a bio-port, but the attendant proves less than trustworthy and the two barely escape with their lives. When Allegra seeks the assistance of bio-technician Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm) to repair her ailing pod, she discovers that Cortical Systematics, a rival gaming corporation, may be behind the attempts on her life. But when she and Ted finally play eXistenZ, they are immersed in a world of devious double-agents and are caught in the middle of both a corporate war and an uprising by a group of fanatical "realists" who oppose gaming and all that it stands for. The line between game and reality begins to blur and Allegra and Ted find they can trust no one – not even each other.

David Cronenberg’s first original screenplay since Videodrome (1983), eXistenZ was inspired by, of all things, the fatwa placed by Iranian fundamentalists on the life of author Salman Rushdie. The film expands and elaborates on themes and concerns that have always been of interest to Cronenberg: the alienating effects and seductive power of popular technology and pop culture, and the fear of corporeal breakdown. In many ways, eXistenZ also serves as a kind of sequel to, or continuation of, Videodrome, by taking that film’s concern with technology as an extension of the human body and going one step further – technology as a representation of (or even substitute for) reality. The battle cry of the disenfranchised in Videodrome – "Long live the new flesh!" – transmutes in eXistenZ into "Long live realism!"

Though dismissed by many critics as being a mere rehashing of Videodrome, eXistenZ – with its cheeky game-within-a-film structure and its numerous twists and turns – is arguably Cronenberg’s most accessible and playful film to date. It achieves a narrative simplicity, without sacrificing texture or complexity, and displays a wonderful sophistication in framing and composition, with a visual emphasis on detachment and dislocation. The film also carries the most loaded subtext of any of Cronenberg’s films since his earliest work: if Shivers (1975) anticipated the sexual paranoia of the AIDS era and Videodrome presaged the search for psycho-sexual fulfillment on the Internet, then eXistenZ is perhaps best understood as Cronenberg’s anticipation of issues and anxieties likely to be associated with the coming age of biotechnology.

eXistenZ won a Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Artistic Achievement at the Berlin International Film Festival and a Genie Award for Best Editing (Ronald Sanders). It was a box-office hit in France and did reasonably well in Canada, but fared poorly in the United States. The film had the misfortune of being released in North America just a few weeks after Larry and Andy Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999), the hugely successful blockbuster that was also about illusion masquerading as reality.

By: Andrew McIntosh