eXistenZ has more going on, more ideas and layers, than any of its thematic late-90s bunkmates – The Matrix, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor – even if it’s the least polished of the quartet. It’s engaging, and engrossing, and David Cronenberg creates a sense of recursive, entropic remove from any original point via a range of baseline realities, but his movie is perhaps more satisfying thematically than it is in terms of storytelling. It doesn’t even make its rules of gameplaying entirely clear.
Rules such as, how immersive is one’s avatar? As I see it, the only way eXistenZ can function – or transCendenZ, or whatever lies above (or below) that – is for it to be wholly immersive. Which is to say, the only active participant of one’s primary consciousness is one’s subconscious (coercing and cajoling the subject matter of the game itself, at least as far as we can infer, from what we see). When you’re in the game, you have to believe you are that character, or it can’t function effectively. Which means that, in eXistenZ, you believe you are a games designer and tech clerk entering a virtual realm (it could be that this density in terms of background detail aids rather than detracts from immersion. As opposed to, say, being a Neo).
So it would follow that no player can break their avatar. And when Ted wants out during the game, he cannot do so in the way someone in, say, Ready Player One might. The comments of Chris Eccleston’s seminar leader (“I had a lot to do in that first scene at the church, but I thought the character was boring”) and Ian Holm’s Vinokur (“My accent in the game was so thick, I could hardly understand myself”) may seem reflections on “performing characters”, but they can only be after-the-fact analyses of those fully invested in the moment at the time of playing.
In those terms, the ending’s “Hey, tell me the truth… Are we still in the game?” (Oscar Hsu, formerly the unlucky Chinese waiter) will represent another layer of the assumed characters (Cronenberg: “Of course, we don’t know if that’s really the last level”), by which we are either moving further away from, or inching closer, to our actual personas. Into this mix, we have the apparent impulses of gameplay exerting themselves over the immersive avatar, such as Jude Law’s Ted licking Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Allegra’s port and their making out, and Ted’s “I do feel the urge to kill someone”. Or is this also their subconscious impacting on the characters? Cronenberg is reticent of offering anything conclusive. And does this also mean he, Ted, subconsciously, wants to kill his girlfriend, and Allegra him?
This is, of course, key to the overall idea, of identity and recognition thereof via fixed time and place and association. Replace all those and how easy is it to assume an entirely different persona, memory, perception? Of bedrock reality determining who we are and the continuity thereof.
Cronenberg was asked about the physical form and its mutation as a theme in his work, but his answer applies itself to the mind in that body: “Do you remember when you found out you wouldn’t live forever?” he asks, continuing “That’s the basis of all existentialist thought, which, of course, is an underpinning of this movie. It’s not called ‘eXistenZ’ for nothing”. As an atheist-materialist, Cronenberg’s perspective is necessarily one whereby “the first fact of human existence is the human body”. Leading in turn to the conundrum of mortality “because the self-conscious mind cannot imagine non-existence”. By Cronenberg’s rationalist reductionism, “that’s one of the reasons people believe so strongly in reincarnation”. An entirely legitimate position, the only one he could reach, given the limits of his definitions.
And yet, one might easily see the immersive avatars of eXistenZ as a metaphor for reincarnation. Although, whether that leads one to the conclusion that our realm is controlled by a malign corporation, a malign demiurge, or simply the ultimate expression of freewill (requiring limited preconditions each time we’re returned/willing return to the wheel) is up for debate.
Cronenberg does not, however, appear to be speculating on whether the physical itself – as a baseline state – is itself illusory. The matrix-within-a-matrix idea was something The Thirteenth Floor ran with (and The Matrix conspicuously did not, although it has been speculated the idea, as a revelation, was dropped because others were using it concurrently), and it’s one that gives itself – even popularly in mainstream science, which ought to be bring suspicion on it, if nothing else does – to a more encompassing suggestion that all of creation, at least as far as we are able to experience it, is a hologram or simulation. Which of course, also evokes gnostic conceptions of a corrupted creation, themselves popularised since the very-convenient-to-modern-science-thinking discovery of miraculously preserved texts in 1945.
True, Allegra’s observation “But it’s a game everybody’s already playing”, when Ted expresses doubts over the currency of this virtual, unformed eXistenZ world, where everyone is stumbling around, rules and objectives unknown or possibly non-existent, is perhaps the central exchange in Cronenberg’s movie. But that’s more to suggest everyone could long-since be entirely jacked in, via twisted organic transhumanist tech into a sim, not that there’s no ultimate physical-material source to it all. Without being able to address the mind-body interface, much of Cronenberg’s oeuvre would fall apart. Thus, technology is “an extension of the human body, it’s inevitable that it should come home to roost”.
It would probably be an overstatement to suggest Cronenberg is an advocate of transhumanism, but he’s at very least actively ambivalent towards it. Which is why his pictures (Scanners, Videodrome, this) see tech and evolution as intrinsically linked and inevitable. Just as there are those who embrace it, there are those who oppose it (luddites, or perceptive souls?) By Cronenberg’s reasoning “Technology is us. There is no separation…. technology wants to be in our bodies, because it sort of came out of our bodies”. That’s catnip to Ahriman, per Steiner’s demonic definitions*, but it’s not to say Cronenberg doesn’t simultaneously recognise that “it is at times dangerous and threatening” (curiously too, he expresses the view that technology “doesn’t exist anywhere else in the universe. I’m rather sure of that”, which is to say he doesn’t really buy into the notion that “the spaceships come”. Quite how he quantifies that in terms of an atheist universe, I don’t know, but it’s an interesting cosmological position).
Ted: Don’t you think you should have to suffer for all the harm you’ve done and intend to do to the human race? Don’t you think the greatest game artist ought to be punished… for the most effective deforming of reality?
The factional viewpoints tech gives rise to are found in eXistenZ through slogans of an ilk familiar from the director’s prior work; “Death to the demoness Allegra Geller!”; “Death to Realism!”; “The uprising has begun!” This means there is, at times, an uneasy sense of Cronenberg repeating himself, only this time in an arena he’s not entirely au fait with, such that it bears more resemblance to Philip K Dick (complete with Perky Pat food – from The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch) than a legit riff on the gaming sphere. We have eroticised tech and organic tech, sexualised lubing up of orifices via insertion at the rear (and mockery of those who aren’t with it, haven’t been augmented, jabbed or penetrated: “No, I was never fitted with a bioport. What do you care?”) Of the factions, Cronenberg is again equating technological movements with religious ones (he opens and closes in a church; Allegra is essentially Eve, within the game anyway, offering Ted the apple of transhumanist wisdom)
Allegra: Are you friendly, or you not?
From a production perspective, eXistenZ is notably rather mundane. Peter Suschitzky, a Cronenberg regular since Dead Ringers and the guy who helped make The Empire Strikes Back look so astonishingly good, offers a typically Cronenberg world of claustrophobic interiors. There’s little in the way of flourish, the focus being on queasy tech, such that the more overt gaming elements (Callum Keith Rennie as a commando) are static, in a manner that leaves you unsure whether Cronenberg is drawing attention to the artifice or this kind of action staging simply isn’t really his bag.
A similar question arises with Eccleston’s accent. He and Holm sound entirely different outside the game, but I haven’t heard Eccleston deliver a noticeably better American elsewhere. eXistenZ is very much a movie of small supporting roles (Eccleston, Holm, Rennie, Sarah Polley, Willem Dafoe), designed to make an impact from a recognisable face or type rather than a strong character. Although, Don McKellar’s Realist contact makes more of an impression (amusingly, one take on the movie draws attention to its “progressive” credentials by having a game designer as a woman… except did you see the ending?) Law and Leigh are both solid leads, but neither makes for a classic Cronenberg protagonist; if anything, they’re atypically photogenic ones (although, this is coming after Crash).
Cronenberg’s idea, of a Fatwa against a VR game designer, developed from a meeting with Salman Rushdie. That’s perhaps the least interesting element, though (not least because, as alluded above, the conflict between change and those who would hold it back is a running theme in his work). eXistenZ doesn’t, perhaps, have the energy or urgency of a tale Cronenberg needs to tell, in the way Videodrome or Dead Ringers do, but what he does with it is, in some ways, nevertheless more effective than his moviemaking peers in exploring that the conundrum of a reality maybe more elusive than we’d like to believe.
*Addendum (26/10/22): It seems Steiner made Ahriman up, whether knowingly or inadvertently, but “he” is nevertheless an ideal entity for Cronenberg’s predelictions.