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Ready Player One: Why ‘eXistenZ’ Is a Gamer-Movie Masterpiece

Our latest ‘Be Kind, Rewind’ takes on David Cronenberg’s virtual-reality, body-horror headscratcher

Jude Law

Jude Law in 'Existenz.'

©Dimension Films/Everett

Every few months, RollingStone.com shines a spotlight on a forgotten, neglected, overshadowed, underappreciated and/or critically maligned film that we love in a series we call “Be Kind, Rewind.” Our latest movie: David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ.

As euphoric as it was going to the movies as a horror-loving teenager in the Eighties, you could still leave the theater unsatisfied, especially when slasher flicks morphed into franchise overload: another Freddy, another Jason, slaughter, rinse, repeat. Blissfully, there was this nice Jewish boy — from Canada, no less — who could be counted on to explode a human head. David Cronenberg was a filmmaker who could channel the psychic rage of both warring mutant telepaths (1981’s Scanners) and a true oddity like Christopher Walken (1983’s The Dead Zone). This was a man who somehow knew that a certain crowd wanted to see Debbie Harry put out a cigarette on her breast. By the time the next decade had rolled around, he was getting thanked from the Oscar podium: When Jeremy Irons won for playing real-life creep Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune (1990), he gave a shout out to his Dead Ringers director. “Some of you may understand why,” the actor cryptically declared.

Cronenberg has since moved on, always stylishly and idiosyncratically, to bigger things. But as late as 1999 and the mighty eXistenZ, he was still that weirdo who sent out illegal broadcasts to Geek Nation. A sci-fi thriller about sexy keyboard jockeys, corporate espionage and the infecting spread of terrorism, his ode to immersive gaming feels a beat too late to the modem-screech siren call of virtual reality. (The Matrix would come out a month later.) Critics were mild-to-mixed; videogame-cinema fanatics who thought they were getting a Tron-like romp left itchy and confused; the general public grimaced and yawned.

But as with everything the director did, this inside-out genre exercise was no mere mere escapism. Cronenberg has credited his script’s inspiration not to endless nights logged on a PlayStation but the fatwa imposed on The Satanic Verses‘ Salman Rushdie. And as the movie settles in, via a stunning title sequence of brownish, mysterious maps and Howard Shore’s ominous score, you can already sense a mature mistrust darkening the adolescent dream. Like its bone pistol constructed from carefully hidden spare parts, the film contained bits and pieces that, when fitted together, offered a legend to a singular artistic sensibility and one man’s squishy real-life anxieties. Click everything into its right place, and you have a weapon — as well as a great unheralded Nineties sci-fi treatise on our perpetual addiction to a life lived online and a glimpse of the malleable realities on the horizon.

Helping out immensely are the players: No Keanu Reeves here, no kung fu. Instead, we get the exquisitely neurotic Jennifer Jason Leigh, the crushworthy icon of the cinematic smart set, as Allegra Geller, “the game-pod goddess herself.” A genius programmer, Geller stands nervously with a cup of coffee at the back of a focus-group session, one that takes place in a church. Blond wavy highlights sprout out of her head like Keith Haring squiggles. Her soon-to-be-released game, titled eXistenZ, feeds the cult of an unlikely celebrity. Meanwhile, Jude Law plays Ted, some kind of security guard or publicist, who waves an electronic wand at folks coming in — “more for recording devices,” he assures. As it happens, violence erupts as soon as the VR session is underway, and Ted and Allegra go on the run together, a twilight exile that you already can tell is part of the fantasy, part of the fun.

Here, naturally, the fun has teeth: “Long live the new flesh,” James Woods murmured in 1983’s Videodrome (when he wasn’t inserting VHS tapes into his abdomen) and eXistenZ would be the final flourish of the body-horror auteur’s pliable way with organic mass. Playing Geller’s game doesn’t require plastic joysticks, but pulsating pink “metaflesh” pods, squirming in people’s laps like hairless cats. With the lazy flick of a finger, the controllers shudder to life, squealing in orgasmic ecstasy. It’s impossible not to laugh at this Cronenbergian-as-it-gets prop craft, until you realize the pods are connected by umbilical cords to anus-like “bioports” at the base of the spine — and then you’re really howling. We love our toys; they become our appendages. And when you have stars as attractive as Leigh and Law, you know those orifices are probably going to get fingered and tongued.

As always, Cronenberg is inviting us to get (mind)fucked and enjoy it. Yet there’s something liberated in the way he feminizes his whole project as the artistic creation of a woman who invents a new kind of sex. Surrogate square Ted squirms as Allegra penetrates him, as do many male members of the audience, at which point eXistenZ leaps up several notches in ambition. The counterbalance is a nightmarish strand of corporeal ruination: Seated at a surreal Chinese restaurant within the game, Ted tears into the “special,” a disgusting meal of mutated frog parts. Picking out the bones, he assembles the movie’s other brilliant invention: a fully organic “gristle gun” that fires human teeth with a nauseating crack. Bodies are wonderlands in Cronenberg’s universe — they contain all we need to connect and destroy. He stokes appetites we don’t know we have.

Elsewhere, the movie plays like the underground junkie drama it secretly is, two sweaty obsessives intertwined on a motel bed, their brains on a trip far away. “I’m very worried about my body,” Ted says, emerging from a trip. Taking the plunge is dangerous, addictive and exhilarating, a notion that could be applied to all of the director’s work. Cronenberg’s world affords character actors like Ian Holm and Don McKellar the chance to try out wacky Eastern European accents — but more centrally, it’s one that lets viewers embrace a future psychology where identity and gender is fluid. Reminder: We’re still talking about a movie that played in malls.

A self-contained Möbius strip of a film, eXistenZ has a twist ending that’s best left experienced than described. Rather, let’s scrape the ceiling of its conception: namely, the way games turn us into masters of untold power. “Did you ever play her game ArtGod?” asks an Allegra-obsessed service-station attendant played by Willem Dafoe. (Of course there’s room for Jesus here.) “Thou, the player of the game, art God. Very spiritual.” Here, we get that huge Dafoe grin, gap-toothed and voracious. “God, the artist…the mechanic!” Cronenberg has never been vain, not in his work or in interviews, but these happen to be his thoughts on filmmaking. You lord over an imaginary world that reflects or warps your own. You slip your ideas into the minds of those watching. We do the rest. Game over. Start again.

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