Underseen Movie: David Cronenberg’s ‘eXistenZ,’ a Cerebral Version of ‘The Matrix’

David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” is a film I like to describe as being the cerebral version of “The Matrix.” It gets you to question the reality the characters are in all throughout the movie, and it continues Cronenberg’s exploration of the blurring line between reality and fantasy. With “The Matrix,” it was clear what was real and what was not. But with “eXistenZ,” you can never be sure what is truly real, and its ending will leave you guessing for a very long time. But to quote the title of a certain U2 song, one has to wonder if everyone here has found something which is even better than the real thing.

“eXistenZ” stars the always awesome Jennifer Jason Leigh as Allegra Geller, a well-known game programmer who we first see about to try out her latest game which is said to be like no other. While most new game consoles come in these big metal boxes, Allegra’s box is more of an organic creation as it looks like a sizable piece of human skin which looks to be living and breathing when activated. To play the game, you have to hook a cord, one which looks eerily like an umbilical cord, into a port in your back which connects the game to your spine. Like many a Cronenberg movie, “eXistenZ” deals with the degradation of the human body as well as the human soul.

In the course of testing out the game to an excited crowd, Allegra is nearly assassinated by a man who is intent on eliminating what he sees as a threat to reality. From there, it becomes clear a war has begun between those who want to preserve reality by destroying the gaming industry, and those who want to preserve games and see them be taken to another level of advancement. Allegra is forced to go on the run, and coming along with her is a young marketing trainee, a shy nerd of a man named Ted Pikul. Pikul is played by Jude Law, and it is a role no one could probably see him playing these days. Ever since he showed off his tanned body on the sunny shores in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” he has become a sexy god to so many. There’s nothing sexy to this character he plays here or, at least, not right away.

In the course of the attack, Allegra’s gaming pod is damaged, so she has to play the game to see what needs to be fixed. She encourages Ted to play it with her, but he is not terribly enthusiastic about doing so as he is a virgin to these kinds of games. He has never played them before, and he does not have a bioport in his back which is essential to playing the game. Moreover, he does not like things like bioports or needles being inserted into his body. But Allegra eventually encourages him to play along, and he does get a bioport jack hammered into his back courtesy of Gas (the always reliable Willem Dafoe). From there on out, Allegra’s and Ted’s voyage through the game will challenge their perceptions, and it has them wondering where they really are in all of this.

I remember seeing “eXistenZ” at an art house movie theater in Orange County when it was first released. Along with the characters, I was ever so eager to experience what they were experiencing when they played this game. While it felt like it took forever to get to their game experience, it turned out to be nothing like I could have ever expected.

With our infinite advancements in technology, the story is now far more frightening than ever before. Cronenberg is questioning how far we will go in our pursuit of the high which is virtual reality. Once we have experienced the game, will we even want to leave it? Will it make our “normal” reality feel more unreal? Everyone seems to be stuck in jobs they hate but have to work at, and they always dream of a better life for themselves which they constantly wait for instead of making it actually happen. Could this be accomplished through a game? Maybe not, but with the way technology continues to advance, anything is possible.

The other fascinating thing about “eXistenZ” is how it looks at the moral boundaries these characters cross. The games we play on the latest PlayStation or Xbox console seem to have this effect, but we can easily see we are indulging in a fantasy which makes everything okay. But as the line between reality and fantasy blurs all the more, the consequences seem all the more brutal and fiercer, and these characters end up crossing a line they can never undo. When we cannot tell reality from fantasy, how can we justify the horrible things we do to others?

Cronenberg’s movies have a look all their own, and “eXistenZ” has his signature touch throughout. What other director could come with an organic pod for game playing, or with a gun made out of animal bones with teeth used as bullets? Even in the game the characters are playing, the violence is still pretty vicious, and no death ever looks pretty. This is also typical with Cronenberg’s movies as we see faces blown off to where certain people look like Harvey “Two Face” Dent from “The Dark Knight.

Leigh and Law are always terrific in just about everything they do, and their work in “eXistenZ” is no exception. Leigh, who usually plays characters who are anything but pretty, is an alluring presence throughout as she not only manages to seduce Law, something which cannot be all that hard to do, but she also succeeds in seducing the audience into the world her character inhabits. This is what her performance needed to accomplish in order to make this film work, and it should make one admire her acting skills all the more.

If “eXistenZ” were made today, I’m not sure we would be seeing Law in this role as he would probably seem too cool to play such an awkwardly social character. People get used to seeing you in a certain way, and it can get to where no one wants to see you as anything else. It’s a shame because Law truly is a great actor, and seeing him go against type here as a man who has to overcome his phobias and aversions in order to play the game and help Allegra is endlessly enthralling. The effect it has on him is immense as it unlocks unconscious desires which quickly rise to the surface. Law portrays this evolution of his character very effectively, and he has great chemistry with Leigh from start to finish. Heck, is it possible for Law to not have good chemistry with any actress?

The ending of “eXistenZ” will leave you with more questions than answers. This may frustrate a lot of audiences, but Cronenberg has not always been one to give you conclusions which tell you all you need to know. You come out of his movies thinking about what you have just witnessed, and this makes his work stay with you long after the end credits have concluded. It is not an action-packed film like “The Matrix,” and you won’t see a lot of actors wearing skin clad leather costumes and wearing cool sunglasses here, but this movie stands on its own as an examination of where technology is taking us. Like “Videodrome,” it threatens to be a very prophetic film as we head further and further into the new millennium with technological discoveries which put us into the action and other realities more than ever before.

We are still all on a search for something which is even better than the real thing, and it’s never gonna stop. But after watching “eXistenZ,” I am reminded of the need for limits on things as many, especially in America, continue to act like children instead of being the adults they have been for some time. Facts should be indisputable, but a reality other than our own is always far more appealing than what our current existence resembles.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace’

With the unveiling of the first trailer for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” many generations were once again reminded of how thrilling it is to get our first glimpse at the latest episode which will take us to a galaxy far, far away. Seeing the fans cheer the trailer on at the recent Star Wars Celebration in Chicago, Illinois also took me back to the times when I got to witness any of the them on the silver screen with a large and incredibly enthusiastic audience as there are few cinematic experiences people are as passionate as a “Star Wars” movie.

After watching “The Rise of Skywalker” trailer, I found myself going back to the year 1998 when I was at the enormous movie theater located in the Irvine Spectrum Center to watch “Star Trek: Insurrection.” This was in the winter before “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was set to be released. I remember hearing about the development of the prequel movies when I was in junior high school when time moved by way too slowly. Those movies could not come soon enough, and it would feel like an eternity before they finally arrived on the silver screen.

Never will I forget this particular evening as I watched the lights go down in the theater and the trailers began to appear. We thought we were getting “The Phantom Menace” trailer right at the start, but it turned out to be a teaser for “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” another all-time great movie trailer. But as soon as the Lucasfilm Ltd. Logo appear on the silver screen, the audience members began to applaud and cheer loudly as this was the one thing they were eager to see more than anything else.

Knowing this was particular “Star Wars” movie was the first new one since “Return of the Jedi,” which was came out almost 16 years before, and understanding how it marked George Lucas’ return to the director’s chair since “A New Hopes” (22 years to be exact), there was no way you could not be the least bit excited about this particular motion picture. We keep hearing about this movie or that one is the most anticipated movie in history, but this saying could not be truer when it came to “The Phantom Menace.”

This trailer hits all the right notes. John Williams’ famous themes never sounded as good as they did here, and the visual effects looked simply amazing. Seeing Yoda back in action earned an extra few cheers as few characters have given us such endless wisdom as he has. Plus, you had Samuel L. Jackson as a Jedi master, so you now there will be at least one bad ass motherfucker in this PG-rated movie. Plus, that Sith lord Darth Maul looked especially evil even by Darth Vader standards, so there was something else to look forward to. And when the trailer climaxed with Williams’ music, the crowd cheered louder than I have ever heard anyone cheer at a trailer before. It goes without saying that everyone was all set to see this sucker on opening night and perhaps even sleep outside the local movie theater so they could be the first ones inside.

Forget about what you thought about the finished film (that’s for a separate article). There was no cinematic experience you could have been more hyped about back in the 1990’s than “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” I love this trailer because it reminded me of the many things I love about these movies, and of how important it was to see it before people spoiled it just as Homer Simpson spoiled “The Empire Strikes Back” for those waiting in line for it. Even today, 20 years later, this is still a thrilling trailer to sit through.

Star Wars Phantom Menace teaser poster

Star Wars Phantom Menace movie poster

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Austin Powers – The Spy Who Shagged Me’

It was December of 1998, and “Star Trek: Insurrection” just opened in movie theaters everywhere. At the time, I was a student at UC Irvine, and I had just wrapped up the last of my finals in the first quarter. To say that I was relieved was an understatement as I was minoring in English and made the mistake of taking three classes which left me with a boatload of reading and not nearly enough time to have a life outside of school. Once I was done, I didn’t even hesitate to celebrate, and I drove straight out to the Irvine Spectrum Center where “Star Trek: Insurrection” was playing.

But while the theater was filled with many people ready to boldly go with the crew of the starship Enterprise to where no one has gone before, the one thing foremost on our minds was if “Insurrection” would be preceded by the just released trailer for “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” It had been almost 16 years since “Return of the Jedi” came out, and now that a new “Star Wars” movie was on the horizon, it felt to many like the second coming of Christ.

As the lights went down, I could feel everyone around me holding their breath in anticipation and praying that the first movie trailer shown would be for “The Phantom Menace.” Sure enough, once we got past “the following preview has been approved for ALL AUDIENCES by the Motion Picture Association of America” title card, we were thrust into outer space and shown what looked to be the wreckage of the last Death Star. As the camera zoomed in on the chair where Emperor Palpatine once sat, the audience got super excited and started to cheer as they were convinced the first look at the next “Star Wars” movie was about to be unveiled. Instead, the chair turned around to reveal Michael Myers as Dr. Evil who, while holding Mr. Bigglesworth, said, “You were expecting somebody else?”

It was a brilliant move on the part of Myers, director Jay Roach and New Line Cinema to promote “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” in this way as it played on what we know about “Star Wars” and exploited it to great effect. Once we realized what was actually being promoted, we all responded enthusiastically as Myers danced with abandon as the title character and sported those glasses and the inescapably large teeth he had. Yay baby indeed!

I also loved it when the trailer’s narrator said the following:

“If you see only one movie this summer, see ‘Star Wars.’”

You have to admire New Line Cinema for admitting this as even they had to admit there was no way this long-awaited sequel was going to beat “The Phantom Menace” at the box office. Instead, they presented it as an underdog to where it was kindly asking audiences to give it a look after they watched the latest “Star Wars” movie for a second time. Hollywood and the studios which inhabit it are always out to promise audiences how this movie is a must-see, and yet here this particular studio, which has since been absorbed by Warner Brothers, admitted this one was not going to use the force the same way Lucasfilm was going to, and it worked to the advantage of this “Austin Powers” adventure.

This is one of those movie trailers, let alone teaser trailers, which has stayed with me after so many years. I still remember the great feeling and humorous effect it had on me and the rest of the audience. As a result, it has long since earned its place on my list of the greatest movie trailers ever made.

We did eventually get to see the first “Phantom Menace” trailer before “Star Trek: Insurrection” began, but while the audience gave it a thunderous response, there was no forgetting the mark Mr. Powers left on us beforehand.

Sandy King Revisits ‘John Carpenter’s Vampires’ at New Beverly Cinema

Vampires movie poster

Movie producer Sandy King dropped by New Beverly Cinema on November 19, 2011 to talk about her husband John Carpenter’s movie “Vampires.” The website Horror Movie a Day hosted the midnight screening which brought out a small but dedicated crowd who yearned to see it on the big screen again. Carpenter once said he originally became a filmmaker to make westerns, and this movie, based on the novel “Vampire$” by John Steakley, is the closest he has ever come to making one.

King said the project came to her and Carpenter after she bailed out a producer who was working on a Largo Entertainment show. Largo Entertainment was the sales engine behind this feature, and while she and Carpenter were used to putting their own projects together, King stated they were “more for hire” when it came to “Vampires.”

Casting “Vampires” was Reuben Cannon who brought actors from all over the world to his casting office. There were even midget actors, King said, who were about 4 feet tall. Many who did get cast as blood suckers were stunt people as they had to perform the movie’s most dangerous stunts. The scene where vampires climb out of the dirt proved to be the roughest stunt of them all.

Thomas Ian Griffith was cast as the imposing master vampire, Valek. King was standing outside Cannon’s office when she noticed a shadow looming over her. It turned out to be Griffith who is actually 6’ 6” tall, and his height gave her the strong impression of a vampire. King also said on top of Griffith being tall and athletic, he could also act which made him a perfect choice for the role.

When it came to describing James Woods, who plays Jack Crow in the film, King said bluntly, “He’s nuts!” It turned out King and Woods shared the same publicist, and Carpenter was looking for a really good actor to play Jack Crow. While Woods proved difficult to cast as the studio didn’t want him in the lead, Carpenter was intent on working with him despite the actor’s reputation of being difficult to work with. The role, however, turned out to be a real physical challenge for Woods as he was not really an athletic actor at the time, something which is hard to believe after watching “Vampires.” Stunt coordinator Jeff Imada ended up helping him look as tough as he does onscreen, but King stressed Wood’s role was really about acting more than anything else.

As for the rest of the cast, King described them as “great” and “really good people.” She said Sheryl Lee, who played the prostitute Katrina, is “the most unspoiled actress ever.” Daniel Baldwin, who played Montoya and is better known for his legal problems, was not a problem according to her. In fact, when a wave of bronchial flu ended up infecting the cast and crew, she said Baldwin ended up bringing soup for everyone.

While receiving a rather middling reception when it debuted domestically, “John Carpenter’s Vampires” is a better movie than people generally give it credit for. Like many of the “Halloween” director’s films, it has gained a strong cult following years after its release, and I still find it to be wildly entertaining to this very day.