eXistenZ

Reading this column, it occurs to me, must sometimes feel like an odd exercise in random access. After all, I’ve got the entirety of cinema history to work with—more than a century’s worth of memorable scenes—and no particular guiding principle when it comes to selection. Nonetheless, I’m not just grabbing DVDs at random from my shelf and/or Netflix; something usually triggers a specific idea. For example, last week, in a fit of nostalgia, I downloaded the iPhone port of Dragon’s Lair, a videogame into which I’d sunk countless hours and probably close to $100 in quarters back in the summer of 1983. (It cost 50 cents a pop and had a goal that demanded endless trial-and-error, plus brute memorization.) That got me thinking about videogames in general, and about the ways in which gameplay both has and hasn’t influenced filmmaking. And of course, you can’t even catch a faraway glimpse of that train of thought without settling on David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, which was made a decade ago and is somehow the last word on this still-evolving subject.

Much of eXistenZ takes place inside the title game, a virtual-reality extravaganza created by a hypothetical future’s most renowned game designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh). On the run from “Realists” who object to the increasing encroachment of fantasy into everyday life, Leigh and her bodyguard, Jude Law, hole up in an abandoned ski lodge and test Leigh’s sole copy of her game eXistenZ, which may have been accidentally damaged. Much like Avatar, this involves losing consciousness in one’s actual location and inhabiting another body, though in this case, the avatar looks just like you and the world you move through is entirely simulated. The game’s highlight takes place at a Chinese restaurant, where Leigh and Law order the “special” and gradually discover that it’s considerably more special than they’d anticipated.

Let me begin by stating the obvious: This scene is gross. As in, Cronenberg has gone out of his way to make the dish as nauseating as possible while still having it vaguely resemble actual food. (Law’s remark about “our two-headed friend” refers to a previously seen mutant animal.) And as disgusting as the special looks, it arguably sounds even worse, what with all the gnawing and tearing and slurping and separating. Perhaps only the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer—a possible influence on Cronenberg, now that I think about it—has had this much grotesque fun dwelling on the noises produced when one bit of flesh comes in violent contact with another. And lest we wonder whether it at least smells delicious, Leigh spends the entire scene daintily covering her nose with her hand. These gross-out comic touches help disarm us in preparation for the genuinely unsettling moment when we realize that Law is now armed. 

Thing is, though, while the “gristle gun” (as it’s apparently known) remains one of the most indelible images in recent movies, it’s also symptomatic of what I consider the film’s fundamental flaw, which is that eXistenZ—or tranCendenZ, for those who’ve seen the whole thing and want to get nitpicky—doesn’t seem like a game that anyone would actually choose to play, either today or in any conceivable future. For one thing, like I said, it’s gross—so gross that Law struggles in vain to resist the impulses that make him tuck into this mutant feast. Hard to believe people would voluntarily undergo virtual experiences that they’d shun in real life, assuming (and this is clearly Cronenberg’s thesis, especially given the film’s final line) that the game world is indistinguishable from the real world on a sensory level. It’s one thing to, say, participate in a virtual orgy, which you might never do in actuality because of the possible consequences. But shoveling rancid-looking food into your mouth? I don’t think so. 

More than that, though, the gristle-gun scene demonstrates that Cronenberg’s (admittedly fascinating) obsession with the conjunction of the organic and the mechanical, which is what eXistenZ is really about, blinded him to pretty basic ideas about gaming and its appeal. Which brings me back to Dragon’s Lair. Designed by animator Don Bluth (The Land Before Time, etc.), it was by far the most visually impressive arcade game of its day—your joystick maneuvers advanced a laserdisc inside the console, so that you were essentially watching a slightly interactive movie. (Any wrong move led to instant, hilarious death.) But this also meant that the game itself required no intelligence whatsoever—just quick reflexes and a good memory. Playing it on my iPhone last week, I enjoyed it for its nostalgia value but still quickly grew bored; apart from the once-cool graphics, Dragon’s Lair isn’t really much different from taking a lengthy hearing exam in which the doctor asks you to lift a finger whenever a tone sounds.

By the same token, I can readily imagine a future in which people play complex, multi-player virtual-reality games that would work like, say, Myst, with participants “physically” roaming around a beautifully designed environment and actively searching for clues, tools, exits, what have you. But it’s not as if Law looks at the special and says, “Hmm, the waiter seemed awfully emphatic in his stilted way—this yucky dish must conceal something important,” and then proceeds to investigate. Cronenberg has conceived the scene (and others in the film) so that Law feels compelled to take certain actions, whether he consciously wishes to do so or not. Which effectively undermines the active role that a game avatar would ostensibly play, turning the player back into a passive spectator, albeit in a more immersive fashion. It’s closer to digital 3-D than to the new, Realist-frightening paradigm Cronenberg clearly intends. (Actually, it’s more like a game in which you exchange gunfire with computer players, but the gun fires on its own and you just wear a special vest that thumps you whenever you get shot.)

Granted, Cronenberg addresses this in the scene’s dialogue, having Law wryly note (a bit after the above clip concludes) that “free will is obviously not a big factor in this little world of ours.” “It’s like real life,” Leigh replies. “There’s just enough to make it interesting.” That’s a heady notion, but the scene itself doesn’t really explore it, apart from that exchange—Law winds up acting on his “genuine game urge” despite repeatedly insisting that he can’t or won’t, and the film’s climactic twist (which I won’t reveal) arguably makes it all moot in any case. Cronenberg ultimately implies that the architecture of the game can be influenced by the players’ desires and emotions, but in this scene, we merely see a bizarre puzzle to be solved, and it’s solved not by reasoning, or even by trial and error, but by serving as the designer’s puppet.

Still, none of my practical or philosophical reservations changes the fact that we’re watching a dude gradually assemble a working pistol entirely from bones, gristle, and teeth, which is indisputably awesome. Some moments make such a vivid, lasting impression that they render plot holes or thematic fuzziness irrelevant, and Law cocking the gun at the conclusion of this scene is one of them—that familiar sound, attached to the image of a reconstructed carcass, does something fearsome and strange to your nerve endings, exactly as Cronenberg intended. It’s a surrealistic, dream-haunting gesture for the ages, one that will still resonate long after the movie’s vision of the future seems delightfully quaint.

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