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Only David Cronenberg could make gaming look this weird and gross

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Transcendence has us scanning our memory banks in search of the best technophobic thrillers.

Existenz (1999)

In Existenz, David Cronenberg treats technology as an extension of the body; he seems both fascinated and terrified by its possibilities. The movie is set far enough in the future that video-gaming has developed a vivid, grotesque pathway to virtual reality: Players plug in via a “bioport” installed into their lower spine, communing with rubbery, pulsing game pods instead of traditional consoles. The launch of the game Existenz takes place in a church, where players genuflect before the designer and creator Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). When the test run is interrupted, Geller goes on the run with “PR nerd” Ted Pikul (Jude Law, rocking a Canadian accent), and decides she must play her copy of Existenz in order to save it.


Cronenberg made Existenz between his sci-fi/horror landmarks of the ’80s and his mid-aughts refocusing on less overtly genre-based material; its 1999 release also followed a wave of mid-’90s tech-paranoia movies like Hackers and The Net. In that context, the film is notable for the way it eschews traditional computer imagery. (There are no clumsy representations of cyberspace here.) Instead, Existenz uses Cronenbergian visuals—the bioports are as crazily sexualized as any fan would expect or demand—to make the virtual world appear more physical, and hence difficult to discern from reality.

The characters have different reactions to the thinning line between life and gaming. Pikul feels squeamish about the very idea of a bioport (“I’m very worried about my body,” he says—basically a Cronenberg mission statement), while Geller caresses her gaming pod like it’s a puppy. The director’s tendency to isolate the characters in separate shots parallels their disconnection from the world, and each other; only occasionally do Leigh and Law manage to share the same frame.


Existenz is too playfully trippy to form an angry anti-technology screed, but it clearly expresses unease about the possibility of tech-enabled fantasy play. Its gamer talk also doubles as meta-moviemaking commentary: There’s discussion of “characters” and “roles,” and someone's description of the in-game cuts sounds more like cinematic editing than what you might see in a game’s cutscenes. Cronenberg’s version of gaming, then, is like a movie that may never leave the viewer’s head.

Availability: Existenz is available on Blu-ray and DVD, to stream through Netflix, and to rent or purchase from the major digital services.