eXistenZ: Sex and Video Games and Gooey, Indescribable Things


eXistenZ (1999) Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Don McKellar. Screenplay by David Cronenberg.


For as long as people have been pondering anything, we have been pondering versions of the question best posed by late, great twentieth-century philosopher Freddie Mercury: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”

Fantasies or dreams, demons or illusions, the question takes countless different forms, but it all comes down to wondering if what we perceive is indeed the real world. The idea that our entire existence might be a technological virtual reality is the latest iteration of this very old philosophical question. I didn’t spend a lot of time digging into it, but I did try to pin down the earliest mention of the concept of a technological virtual reality in science fiction. Most articles cite Stanley G. Weinbaum’s short story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles,” first published in 1935, while others reference Laurence Manning’s The Man Who Awoke, which was serialized in Wonder Stories in 1933. There may be earlier examples and in other languages—please chime in if you know of any!

Many types of virtual reality show up in science fiction around the world through the ’60s and ’70s. But the premise doesn’t really hop over to mainstream movies until Tron (1982), and it doesn’t become truly common in films until the ’90s, when suddenly it’s everywhere. That’s not really surprising, because by then personal computers were growing more commonplace, the internet was spreading, and game creators had realized that people would eagerly seize upon opportunities to play around in virtual lives alongside their real ones. By the time we get to the ’90s, there are basically no obstacles left for presenting virtual reality concepts to widespread audiences. If you’ve grown up raising a Tamagotchi, going on simulated high school dates, dying of dysentery before you reach the Dalles, or bemoaning how your society collapses before you can even build granaries, it requires very little reach for filmmakers to ask you to go along with an entire technological reality.

David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) came out with a long string of high-profile films about virtual reality. In fact it was released just weeks after The Matrix and a few weeks before Josef Rusnak’s The Thirteenth Floor, leading to inevitable comparisons in contemporaneous review mentions. I haven’t watched The Thirteenth Floor, but in next week’s column I will be talking about World on a Wire (1973), the fantastic German film it remakes. We’ll watch The Matrix at the end of this month. eXistenZ and The Matrix are very different movies from very different filmmakers, which makes them both a great way of looking at the different styles and purposes of virtual reality science fiction. While The Matrix is about virtual reality being used to hide or obscure the real world, eXistenZ is about virtual reality being used to escape or enhance the real world. At least on the surface—both movies are obviously about quite a lot more than that when you dig down into them, because virtual reality is also a great vehicle for sci fi that is about many different things.

eXistenZ opens with a small meeting of people in what looks like a church. Wait, scratch that. It opens with a moody credits sequence during which you might be tempted to ask, “Why does this music sound like the Lord of the Rings soundtrack?” before you remember that Howard Shore is one of Cronenberg’s longtime collaborators. Thenthe film opens with a small meeting of people in what looks like a church. The purpose of the meeting is to introduce the brand-new video game eXistenZ, supposedly the most advanced in the world. If you’re thinking that a meeting of maybe thirty people in a rural church seems like a strange place for a game company to launch a revolutionary new product, well, don’t worry, because it gets stranger. The game is played on pods that are these weird, blobby, organic things connected to the players by umbilical cords; you start the game on by caressing the pods’ squishy nobs, because it wouldn’t be a Cronenberg movie if a weird, blobby, organic thing had, like, a power switch.

While the game’s creator, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is immersed in the game with some volunteers, a member of the audience reveals himself to be an anti-virtual reality fanatic. He draws a gun made of bone and stringy bits of flesh, and he shoots the meeting host (Christopher Eccleston, we love you, but what was that accent?) and Geller before being gunned down himself. One of the company employees, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), takes Geller and flees to safety.

Cronenberg has said that the idea for eXistenZ came out of an interview he did with Salman Rushdie, which goes to show that strange and unexpected ideas can come from anywhere. But that baseline premise—a video game creator whose life is in danger because fanatics hate how her games affect reality—isn’t really what the movie is about. That’s the basic plot structure, sure, but the movie isn’t interested in saying anything about the morality of virtual reality or video games. Instead, it’s using video games as a vehicle for a sort of philosophical thought experiment about the nature of human will and exploring how we create our world with the choices we make.

But the movie is also interested in having fun. I think that’s important to highlight. Yes, it’s violent and gross and often quite tense, but it’s also very playful and very funny. There’s acknowledgement right from the start that we’re operating under video game rules, absurd as they are. The story can only advance if certain things happen. Every character plays a specific role. The setting exists and responds to serve the story. Inconvenient injuries or mistakes can be reset or ignored. Options are limited in obvious and often ridiculous ways. When the film was released, Cronenberg said in an interview that he wasn’t a dedicated gamer, but he had played some games, including Myst andGadget, and he clearly had a specific kind of exploratory gameplay in mind.

After the assassination attempt, Gellar and Pikul go on the run. Geller has been shot, and when Pikul digs the bullet out it they discover that it is actually a human tooth. Naturally. What else would come from a gun made of bone and gristle? Geller’s wound never bothers her again. What she’s worried about is her game. The only copy of eXistenZ in existence is on her game pod, which might be damaged from the attack. Yes, a major multi-million dollar project has only one copy. Remember: we are following video game rules! It’s not supposed to make sense; it’s supposed to make the story move. She has to play it with a “friendly” player to make sure everything is okay. Pikul is her only option, but that means he has to get a bioport installed in his spine. But they’re in the backwoods of Canada. Pikul skeptically wants to know where they can go for an illegal bio-technical installation in the middle of the night—a country gas station?

Cut to a country gas station called—naturally—Country Gas Station. Sure, that might be the oldest trick in the book when it comes to movie humor, but it made me laugh. Because if the weird fleshy game pods didn’t clue you in, if the “we can’t trust anyone” and “this is the only copy in existence” plot points didn’t clue you in, if the gun made of bone and the bullets of human teeth didn’t clue you in, then Willem Dafoe as a backwoods gas station manager who does illegal surgery on the side will probably get you there: we’re already in a game. Dafoe’s character is even given the name “Gas,” which I love because of course you don’t need to give Willem Dafoe’s weird backwoods gas station guy a name. Why would you bother for an NPC? (Besides, he’s always Willem Dafoe, except in The Lighthouse, where he’s “Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse.”)

The film is full of twists and turns and reversals and reveals, and I’m definitely not going to go recap them all. I just want to focus briefly on a moment at that Country Gas Station. Two moments, I guess, because we can talk about the installation of the bio-port, a scene that is very good news for the people out there whose niche kinks involve Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, and dangerous medical devices in mechanics’ garages. Everything to do with the bio-ports is about sex, to the point where even describing it feels like unnecessary lampshading. It’s all sphincters and lubrication and insertions and sensations.

The reason for this is clear from the moment the first game pod appears on screen, an example of what Roger Ebert called Cronenberg’s “gooey, indescribable organic things”: this might be a story about virtual reality, this might take place entirely inside technology and minds, but it’s still a visceral, sensory, physical experience. Nothing here is shiny, polished, or remote in the way we often expect high-tech stories to be. The setting is rural and isolated and grubby; the technology is organic and gloopy and wriggly.

Spinal sphincters aside, the moment at the gas station that I want to mention is when Geller is outside in the quiet night, testing the reality of the world around her. She throws a stone to hear it clink. She touches the gas pump to feel the texture. She marvels at a mutant little lizard thing. She’s using her senses to explore, and there is a quiet giddiness to her reactions, an interest and awe that Leigh plays perfectly. This is the movie’s way of telling us without telling us that we shouldn’t trust the framework set up when the film dropped us into the story. But it’s not snide, it’s not smug; the film isn’t trying to outsmart its audience. It’s puckishly playful instead, inviting us to play make-believe along with the characters, to feel the same combination of awe and anxiety that they feel at not being able to discern between game and reality.

That mood, both excited and uneasy, carries through as Geller and Pikul begin to play eXistenZ and wind their way through encounters with NPCs (delightfully weird, every one of them) and layers of gameplay, through the slaughterhouse for mutant amphibians, through the whole brilliant, disturbing scene around the “special” lunch, through all the double-crosses and twists and turns that I am not even going to try to describe. Ian Holm shows up; his accent is also terrible. It’s all about corporate espionage and everybody is a double-agent, or not, who knows, it doesn’t matter.

That is, it matters insofar as it is very entertaining, but it does not matter that we know who works for what company or who holds what belief or who we want to be rooting for. This becomes obvious when it gets to the point where Geller and Pikul turn on each other. They do so almost gleefully—which makes perfect sense when they find ourselves in that country church again, this time with very sleek-looking game devices on hand. They have been playing a demonstration of a brand-new game called transCendenZ, which is even more annoying to type than eXistenZ. The game is being presented by its creator, Yevgeny Nourish (Don McKellar), whom we last saw as an NPC working in the mutant amphibian slaughterhouse. The rest of the cast is there too. Ian Holm mocks his own in-game accent. Christopher Eccleston regrets that his character got killed so early in the game. Willem Dafoe is still Willem Dafoe.

It’s not quite a twist when we roll back this extra game layer—the signs were there all along: bone gun, tooth bullet, etc.—but there is an actual twist to come. Geller and Pikul reveal that they are the anti-virtual reality fanatics, and they’ve come to this meeting to assassinate Nourish.

Well, maybe. And maybe not. It might still be a game. The movie ends with a character asking, “Tell me the truth—are we still in the game?” and does not provide an answer.

I don’t do much reading about these Film Club films before I watch them, whether or not I’ve seen them before. I hadn’t seen this one before—many thanks to the commenters who suggested it!—and knew only the premise before watching. Reading about the film afterward was something of a trip. Professional critics at the time were quite positive, but the “random movie viewers on the internet” population offer some pretty wild takes. There are people absolutely certain the characters are still playing a game at the end, people equally certain of the opposite, people convinced the movie presents as an unassailable moral statement against video games, and a lot of people who insist it is a “wake up, sheeple!” diatribe about the importance of being able to discern the real world.

I don’t believe that any audience for any art has to know or accept what the artist intended when making that art. We all get different things out of different stories. But in this specific case, I do think that what Cronenberg thinks this movie is about is more interesting than the more reductive viewer reactions.

He has talked about it in several interviews, such as this one, in which he says, “The title eXistenZ is a reference to the existentialist’s accepting total responsibility for his actions.” That’s why it doesn’t matter how many layers of gameplay there are in the film. There is no answer to that final question; the level of certainty some viewers crave is beside the point. The characters are creating their reality anyway, whether or not they are playing, whether or not they feel compulsions to act in a certain manner, whether or not they can discern and follow the rules of the world around them.

We don’t need Cronenberg to tell us this, however, because the movie has already done so. At one point Pikul expressed discomfort with how it feels to play eXistenZ. He doesn’t like that it feels so real, that the sensations are indistinguishable from reality. He doesn’t like the ambiguity of purpose: “We’re both stumbling around together in this unformed world, whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don’t understand.”

Yes, Geller agrees, that sounds like her game, and Pikul remarks that it will be very hard to sell to people. Geller points out that it’s a game everybody is already playing. Which, in one sense, is literally true within the story; they are having this conversation as characters in the game transCendenZ, even if we don’t confirm that until the end. But it’s also true in the larger sense, in terms of the philosophy the film is exploring. We’re all stumbling around in an unformed world, as floppy and pathetic as the mutant amphibians being harvested outside the slaughterhouse. The rules and objectives are unknown or nonexistent—so we make them up for ourselves.

What I really love about this is how it deviates from the theme of so many sci fi stories about virtual reality. In many virtual reality stories, the goal is to overcome the virtual world, to see through it, to escape from whatever external influence is obscuring your real life. But here, there is no option to escape that responsibility and blame it on someone or something else. You’re the one who ordered the special. You’re the one who pulled the trigger.


What do you think of eXistenZ and Cronenberg’s gooey, gross take on existentialism? A lot of articles and reviews describe this movie as a horror film, which was a bit surprising to me, as I’m a huge scaredy-cat and nothing in the movie scared me. I thought it was funny and often disgusting, but not scary. Is that just me? Is this a horror movie? Or do people just not know how else to classify David Cronenberg’s weird gloopy sex stuff?

Next week: Let’s indulge in some stylish ’70s paranoia with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire. Watch it on the Criterion Channel, or search YouTube and the Internet Archive. icon-paragraph-end



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