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: ‘Naked Lunch’

William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” is a novel you may not have read, but you have definitely heard of it. Due to its subject matter which involves drug addiction (be it heroin, morphine or hashish) and obscene language which people back in 1959 had yet to become numbed to, it was banned in the American states of Boston and Los Angeles. Still, the more people tried to suppress the novel’s existence, the more people came to discover it. Eventually, filmmakers became keen to adapt this controversial novel into a motion picture, and it makes perfect sense David Cronenberg would be the one to successfully do so.

I love how this movie trailer starts off with black and white footage of Burroughs back in the 1950’s as we hear him (his voice was done by an impersonator) talking about how “Naked Lunch” was described by critics as being “disgusting,” “pornographic” and “un-American trash.” Upon its publication, it became a subject for discussion at town hall meetings and book burnings, the latter which is in itself deeply un-American. Burroughs in his impersonated laconic voice, revels at how big a mark his novel made on the American public, and I loved how he talked about how Hollywood in its “infinite wisdom” decided to make a movie out of it 30 years later.

From there, the trailer shifts into color mode as we watch scenes from Cronenberg’s movie which feature Peter Weller, who turned down “Robocop 3” to do this, Judy Davis, Roy Scheider and Julian Sands among others. The visuals Cronenberg gives us here make this motion picture seem wonderfully unique among so many others released back in the 1990’s, and the Canadian filmmaker was still riding high on the success of his remake of “The Fly” which led him to make this and the deeply unsettling “Dead Ringers” with Jeremy Irons.

Why is this movie trailer among my favorites? Well, it makes “Naked Lunch” out to be a unique motion picture like no other, and it revels at how such a controversial novel could still be made into a movie even when so many tried to squash its existence from our collective consciousness. Plus, you don’t see trailers like this anymore as Hollywood is playing it safe now more than ever. Studio executives would not be quick to green light such a controversial tale in a time when superheroes continue to reign supreme at the local multiplex. Then again, the sight of Burroughs wearing a cape would be a fascinating sight in this day and age.

Sadly, Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” was a box office bomb as it grossed only $2.6 million against a budget of around $18 million. Then again, it didn’t help that 20th Century Fox put it out in a limited release and put little effort in expanding it beyond five theaters. Regardless, it has since become a cult film and garnered a special release on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. After all these years, many continue to empower what they do their damndest to resist.

Naked Lunch movie poster

David Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ Proves to Be More Than the Average Gross-Out Movie

The Fly 1986 movie poster

David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly” was released in 1986, a year filled with everlasting cinematic classics like “Aliens,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” “Platoon,” and “Top Gun.” More importantly, it came out during a time where remakes were very rare compared to today, and also when remakes were actually worth watching. Whereas remakes these days serve to capitalize on a known quantity or are being exploited for the sake of some potential franchise, “The Fly” is one where the director took what came before and made it completely his own.

You should all know the story by now. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a brilliant and eccentric scientist who has invented a set of telepods which allow objects to travel instantaneously from one pod to another. Seth shares the story of his invention with science journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) as he attempts to test teleportation on living subjects. Eventually, Seth decides to test it on himself, but he doesn’t realize a common housefly has entered the telepod with him, and the computer gets confused and ends up merging the two lifeforms at a molecular-genetic level. Seth believes the teleportation has purified his body as he discovers a strength he didn’t previously have, but it’s all a build up for a transformation which becomes all the more horrifying as “The Fly” reaches its gruesome climax.

What I love about “The Fly” is its slow build as Cronenberg makes Seth’s transformation into “Brundlefly” all the more unnerving by taking it one step at a time. We first see him engaging in an extraordinary set of gymnastics we would all love to be capable of, and then we watch as he puts an enormous amount of sugar into his coffee at a local diner. This leads Veronica to ask him, “Do you normally take coffee with your sugar?” While I expected a reply along the lines of Christian Slater’s in “True Romance” where he said, “I’m not satisfied until the spoon is standing straight up,” it is immediately clear that Seth is too involved in his own process to see the damage it is doing to his body.

Seth’s face comes to look like it is riddled with severe acne scars, and this brought about a number of PTSD flashbacks for me of when I dealt with my own acne outbreaks back in high school. But the key moment doesn’t come when Seth snaps a guy’s arm in half during an arm wrestle contest (it’s always painful to see a bone sticking out of a person’s body), but instead when he finds himself pulling out his own fingernails. Just the idea of pulling out your own fingernails is painful in itself, but seeing Seth pulling his out to where a great deal of puss explodes from his fingers proves to be even more painful than watching George Clooney getting his fingernails pulled out with a pair of plyers in “Syriana.”

At this point, I want to point out one of “The Fly’s” biggest stars which is Chris Walas. Walas won an Academy Award for Best Makeup for his work here, and it should go without saying just how much he deserved it. As Seth’s body continues to deteriorate in the midst of an unwanted, let alone unexpected, transformation, Walas makes each moment sting with a thankfulness we are not going through what this misguided scientist is. He also gives you the assurance that he and his colleagues have researched all there is to know about this kind of metamorphosis, and this makes Seth’s transformation all the more horrifying. Walas makes you believe something like this could actually happen to where you cannot help but react strongly to everything unfolding before you.

1986 was a big year in science fiction as Sigourney Weaver not only had the lead role in “Aliens,” back when it was rare for an actress to have such a role in a movie, but she also scored an Oscar nomination for her performance which was well-deserved. It’s a shame Goldblum didn’t get the same respect from the Academy as his performance is truly brilliant and wholly original. Just as Weaver dominated all those special effects in “Aliens,” Goldblum makes it clear the makeup is not doing all the acting for him as he fully inhabits Seth Brundle at every stage of his transformation. For the actor, the makeup becomes a costume which comes to inform his character throughout, and Goldblum is fearless in portraying this scientist’s descent into an unwanted fate.

Scientists in movies tend to be either over the top or exceedingly modest and timid, but Goldblum gives us one whose eccentricities make him more alluring than the average one. The actor even sells us on a wonderful moment where he explains why he wears the same suit, shirt and tie each day, and seeing his closet reminded me of a number of movie spoofs where this same situation was used for sheer comedic effect. Even as Seth becomes increasingly unpredictable, let alone unlikable, to be around, Goldblum seduces us deeply into his strange plight which brings about a change he never saw coming.

But let’s not leave out Geena Davis who shares a strong chemistry with Goldblum throughout, and this only makes sense as they were a couple at the time and were briefly married. As Veronica Quaife, Davis creates a complex character whom is eager to take advantage of Seth’s invention for the story of the century, but she soon finds herself falling for him to where she cannot tear herself away from his hideous transformation. The scene where she hugs him after getting her first glimpse at the horrific changes his body is going through brought about a loud gasp of disgust from the audience I watched this movie with at New Beverly Cinema, but it shows just how powerful her performance is. Veronica is at once mortified at how bad things are getting for Seth, and yet she can’t tear herself away from him because she is too emotionally involved to just give up on him. Davis’ commitment to her performance shows the range which would eventually earn her an Academy Award for her work in “The Accidental Tourist.”

Many see Cronenberg as a filmmaker who makes nothing more than gross-out horror movies, but they neglect to see the intelligence and thought he puts into each movie he makes. Whether it’s “The Fly” or “Rabid” or “Scanners” or “Dead Ringers” or “eXistenZ,” Cronenberg has fearlessly explored the phobias we all have of bodily transformation and disease to unforgettable effect. His movies are not designed to make you throw up, but instead to confront how our bodies deteriorate in one way or another. His remake of “The Fly” is one of his most unforgettable motion pictures as we can’t take our eyes off the screen even as Seth Brundle’s transformation becomes all the more disgusting. Its power comes from how it draws you in emotionally more than anything else, and we have as much luck at disconnecting ourselves from Seth’s unnerving plight as Veronica does.

Watching “The Fly” again, it is clearer than ever that this movie is about a tragic romance more than anything else. Heck, Shakespeare would have been proud to have written a tragedy like the one presented here. While much of the attention on this remake is forever directed at the makeup design which still grosses audiences out to this very day, it is the romance between Seth and Veronica which drives the story more than anything else. The two of them want to tear themselves away from one another, but deep down neither of them can truly bare to do so, and they are the kind of couple U2 sang their song “With or Without You” about.

If there’s anything wrong with “The Fly,” it’s the ending as things are resolved in a way which is not altogether satisfying. We are left with questions which would not be answered until “The Fly II,” and while that sequel had its moments, it’s no surprise how it paled in comparison to Cronenberg’s remake.

Horror movie remakes are a dime a dozen these days, but Cronenberg’s “The Fly” remains one of the best and most visceral. It is still the director’s biggest commercial hit to date, and I prefer to see this as proof of how his unique style of filmmaking can reach a wider audience than we typically realize. All these years later, Cronenberg remains one of the most original filmmakers working today, and we eagerly await his next cinematic opus with great anticipation.

* * * * out of * * * *