Within the latter half of David Cronenberg’s filmography, 1999’s eXistenZ marks the last time he would release a picture that remains so distinctly “Cronenbergian,” before evolving into a more subversive, prestige-friendly iteration of his own pet themes. The blatant signifiers of what a passive cinephile might immediately recognize as his style are all on display here: fetishistic orifices doubling as I/O ports, a preternatural look at the future integration of media and reality and a discomfiting marriage between sex and technology.

In the film, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the highly lauded designer of the new video game eXistenZ, is nearly assassinated by a radical critic of the game, so she needs Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a marketing intern at the company, to protect her as they flee from future attacks. At first, Geller seems like she just wants to save her own skin, but that’s only half of it. Within her literal skin, in as obvious a Cronenberg touch as possible, exists the only full copy of the new game, and the attempt on her life has potentially damaged the system memory.

So, the film becomes a Russian nesting doll of would-be realities, as Pikul himself must be the guinea pig to test the fidelity of Geller’s new game, becoming lost within the nebulously defined parameters within this mind fuck of a playground. Much of the film’s intrigue comes from the melting down of surety in the concrete truth of one’s surroundings. Not unlike somewhat similar brain-benders of the era, like The Matrix or The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenz is a film wrestling with the toxic possibilities of a post-internet world.

But the perversion of the mind and psyche can’t match the degradation of the human body, as Cronenberg explicitly merges humans with the shiny toys they’ve become so dependent on, initially for connection, and then, as with all opiates, for escape. There’s a dark humor in watching Jennifer Jason Leigh wet a gaming tentacle on her tongue before penetrating Jude Law’s new surgically implant pucker hole with its protruding end, his lower back transformed from a tramp stamp canvas into the haunting lovechild of a USB port and a calloused anus. But it literalizes the borderline medicinal way devices and computer systems become manmade umbilical cords between us and the addictive digital worlds we would all rather live in than our own.

That this film was released before the necessity for phrases like “away from keyboard” and “irl” had to become so commonplace underscores Cronenberg’s gifts as a futurist and his uncanny ability to wrestle with the dread inherent to the virility of modern living. But it also feels like the director exorcising the last bit of gross-out provocation that had become such a hallmark of his most infamous work. As the world changed and more and more mainstream shock-jock cinema became a mainstay of horror, he would go on to find more pernicious and subtle methods for unsettling audiences.

But he sure ended this era with a bang.

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