Cronenberg’s trademark body horror literalizes the way devices and computer systems become man-made umbilical cords between us and our addictive digital worlds.
Ten years before Roger Ebert was wrong about video games not being art and 20 years before the gamers still mad about his article began to spend actual cash money to buy and drink a Twitch streamer’s bathwater, David Cronenberg presaged the entirety of modern gaming culture into one absurd, gross and thrilling film. Two decades since its release, eXistenZ lacks the cultural cachet of similarly trippy sci-fi efforts of its day or the equally immersive films released since, but its prescience remains stirring.
Released in the same year as The Matrix, which was more accessible and popular, and The Thirteenth Floor, which may as well have never come out at all, eXistenZ failed to make much of a mark on its own, falling into a small pack of reality-bending science fiction films that were as impenetrable to normies as they were inexplicable in their proximity. But it is truly due for a resurgence in pop cultural relevance.
Set in a theoretical future world where video games are biomechanical in nature, eXistenZ imagines a world where consoles are replaced by ugly, curiously designed flesh-bags with tentacles and ventricles instead of cables and where the only I/O ports are surgically installed orifices strategically placed on the human body. If anyone was going to make the uncomfortable metaphor for humanity’s burgeoning psychosexual reliance on technology so visceral and kinky, it would be David Cronenberg, a man who must have looked at a Sega Dreamcast and thought “this should look more like a Necronomicon you can fuck.”
The film follows the unlikely pair of Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a marketing intern at gaming company and Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the messianic designer behind a brand new game that gives the film its title. While testing the game out for a focus group, an extremist objector to gaming tries to assassinate Gellar, leaving Pikul to try to protect her as they flee. But Gellar is less interested in preserving her life than her game, the only copy of which exists on a damaged skin console. Gellar finds herself in the difficult situation of needing to test the integrity of her work with a man who not only has never played a game but has a uniquely intense phobia for being penetrated for any reason.
Beyond the surface level hilarity of watching Jennifer Jason Leigh lick a gaming tentacle before pressing it into Jude Law’s new pucker hole, like an extra calloused anus where a tramp stamp tattoo should be, eXistenZ uses Cronenberg’s trademark body horror to literalize the borderline medicinal way in which devices and computer systems become man-made umbilical cords between us and our addictive digital worlds. These concepts have been regurgitated in any number of self-important “Black Mirror” episodes, sure, but never before nor since have they been portrayed in such a gross and specific way as to capture the psychological implications of these ever present tethers. Sure, it’s a blunt aesthetic, but it’s an honest one.
But more so than the film’s dedication to grossing out one section of its audience while probably profoundly turning on the rest, the film’s structure, with Gellar’s game containing so many extra layers of unreality as to call into question the levels between what is real and what is artifice, scans as hypnotically as ever. Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Satoshi Kon’s Paprika mine similar concepts, but neither displays the unease and disquieting nightmare logic in burrowing so deep into fiction as to never truly return to the steady ground of fact.
Cronenberg never wrote another original screenplay, and it’s possible that he’s just never had another idea as potent and portentous. Video games themselves maybe haven’t gotten as odd as he envisioned (at least until Kojima finally releases “Death Stranding”), but we’re all still willing to go to extreme lengths to lose ourselves in elaborate and meticulously rendered worlds outside of our own. Luckily for all of us, the Twitter app fits snugly onto a pocketable smartphone’s logic board memory, precluding us from needing Willem Dafoe to bore an esophagus at the base of our spine to download the newest memes.