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 * * * *

Elisabeth Shue on Arriving at the ‘House at the End of the Street’

House at the End of the Street Shue Lawrence

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

Do not worry about actress Elisabeth Shue because she is doing just fine. To say she has been making a comeback would not be altogether fair as she has never really stopped working. While it has been some time since her heyday in the original “Karate Kid” and her brilliant Oscar-nominated turn in “Leaving Las Vegas,” she has been keeping busy with “CSI” and movies like “Piranha 3D” and “Hamlet 2” among others. But now she gets the opportunity to act opposite one of the hottest movie stars at this moment, Jennifer Lawrence, in Mark Tonderai’s horror movie “House at the End of the Street.

Shue stars as Sarah, a recent divorcee who has just moved with her daughter Elissa (Lawrence) into a new home which they later find has a ghastly history. What makes the dynamic between Shue’s and Lawrence’s characters especially interesting is how they keep trying to figure out who the mother is in this relationship. Shue described Sarah as being a “rock-and-roll groupie type” who is more of a child than Elissa.

“Mark was really wonderful. We worked on the script to create a mother who’s a little more complicated than what was originally on the page,” Shue said.

Having already acted in horror movies, Shue is no novice to this endlessly popular genre. The actress also makes it clear she “definitely likes to be scared” and counts “The Silence of the Lambs” as one of her all-time favorite movies. She also likes how her role in “House at the End of the Street” contrasts to the horror films she previously appeared in.

“Hopefully, this is a bit more real,” says Shue. “I really like the tension in the film, and the way the characters are allowed to live and breathe, so things aren’t jumping out at you all the time.”

Working with Lawrence proved to be a great experience for Shue as she found the “Hunger Games” star to be “incredibly grown up for her age.” This was certainly made clear to the world when Lawrence made a tremendous breakthrough in “Winter’s Bone” in which her character has to take care of her siblings when her parents prove to have more serious problems of their own. Shue has gone on to describe Lawrence as being “much more mature” than she was at her age.

“We didn’t get too much time together before we started filming, but we had some dinners and hung out,” Shue said. “I think we both share those long years of just being a normal person before getting into this business and I think that’s helpful. She never seemed insecure or needy or someone who wasn’t just very, very confident in herself. At that age, I wasn’t that way.”

It is always great to hear when Elisabeth Shue is doing another movie or television show. Those memories we have of her from “Adventures in Babysitting” and “The Karate Kid” have never gone away, and she continues to entertain us today in whatever she does. I think it is safe to say we can be sure will be seeing plenty more of her in the near future.

SOURCES:

Olivia Allin, “Elisabeth Shue on working with Jennifer Lawrence in ‘HATES,’” On The Red Carpet, September 22, 2012.

Nisha Gopalan, “Elisabeth Shue on ‘House at the End of the Street,’ Jennifer Lawrence, and ‘Savvy’ Starlets,” Vulture, September 20, 2012.

Mark Worgan, “Elizabeth Shue Interview: Jennifer Lawrence Was Always Headed To The Top,” Entertainment Wise, September 27, 2012.

Bob Thompson, “Elisabeth Shue is the comeback kid,” Dose, September 20, 2012.