‘eXistenZ’ (1999) UK Blu-ray reviewed

❉ Cronenberg’s violent exploration of digital immersion has proved to be eerily prophetic, in its own skewed bio-technological way.

Cinematically the world of virtual reality (VR) had a hard time of it in the ’90s. After a number of cinematic misfires, including the likes of Brett Leonard’s double whammy of The Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity, the world of VR was finally realised successfully in the summer of 1999. The cinematic fireworks of The Matrix managed to bring to a mainstream audience the idea of an online environment where any number of ideas and ideals could be imagined, the only constraint being the budget of the film and the capabilities of special effects at the time. However, at the same time the emperor of body horror David Cronenberg brought his own vision of online living run amok with eXistenZ to cinema screens. Less flashy than The Matrix it may be and only bringing in a slice of its box office it holds up now more than ever as a sign of what was to come in our own plane of existence.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law in eXistenZ (101 Films)

101 Films’ blu-ray debut of eXistenZ brings it back into the spotlight at a time when our day to day living is becoming more and more immersed digitally. Online gaming is more than a match for cinema in terms of monetary value, earnings and storytelling. And with the rise of VR more and more people are becoming sucked into the world of gaming through ever more inventive ways. Whether it is a diversionary game on your phone or an all immersive, alien environment that can only be glimpsed through your goggles and headset Cronenberg’s violent exploration of digital immersion has more than held up, prophesying all of this in its own skewed bio-technological way.

Allegra Geller, a celebrity games designer who has a dedicated band of followers and devotees much like that of Steve Jobs, finds herself on the run after a test run of her new game eXistenZ goes horribly wrong due to an assassination attempt by a realist cult. Aiding her is Ted Pikul, Jude Law, a security guard/marketing trainee who finds himself getting embroiled in a tale of corporate espionage and realist death cults taking place in the real world and that of eXistenZ. Their identities morph and change against a bio-mechanical backdrop of living games machines and teeth shooting bone guns and the line between what is real and not blurs into indistinction.

Cronenberg’s script, his last to date, is eerily prophetic. From the cult of personality that develops around corporate figures and the concept of brand loyalty which is brought up right at the start, the two-decade old film has not aged at all. The film manages to avoid the trappings that the majority of science-fiction films fall into with aged and obsolete technology, by playing things out in an entirely rural setting. This is probably, and purposefully, the least hi-tech film about gaming there is. Where the expectation of a genre film about virtual reality would be a futuristic urban setting we instead walk through a world of countryside gas stations and trout farms. Although this being a Cronenberg joint these are gas stations where you can have bio-ports shot into your spine and the fisheries breed their own mutated fish on the side to develop games systems.

Transitions from the real world to that of the game are subtly done, often with a simple pan of the camera showing one set melding seamlessly into the next. And while the performances are mannered there is a reason built into the story for this that plays out well. Indeed, some of the scenes and dialogue play out like cut scenes from actual video games. Cronenberg also nods at the forthcoming video games leads to violence arguments playing out today- “I do feel the urge to kill someone here.”

To date this is the last of Cronenberg’s horror/science-fiction forays but for some reason it does not seem to carry the cache of his 70’s and 80’s works. Hopefully 101’s re-release manages to bring it back into the fold. It is one of his most enjoyable and personal films that zips along showing us his preoccupations with flesh and technology melding together; from the game pods that look like specimens you would encounter in a jar in a lab to the umbilical cords that plug your spine to the game pods and other devices such as “sporicidal resonators”, whatever they may be.

The blu-ray comes with a generous wealth of extras, including a newly filmed interview with Christopher Eccleston sharing his memories and opinions on Cronenberg, to newly recorded commentaries including one from the authority on all things genre Kim Newman. It all makes for a great package for a film that is still as entertaining as it is relevant today.


Brand New Extras

• The Leader: An interview with Christopher Eccleston
• Commentary with Kim Newman and Ryan Lambie
• Commentary with Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson
• Limited edition booklet includes: ‘Enemy of Reality: David Cronenberg’seXistenZ’ by Alex Morris, and  ‘Of  Fabrics and Flesh: An interview with DeniseCronenberg’ by Phillip Escott.

Additional Extras

• Audio commentary by David Cronenberg
• Making-of documentary
• Promo Featurette
• Special Effects Featurette
• Backstage interviews with Jude Law, Jennifer  Jason Leigh, Willem Dafoe,Jim Isaac (visual effects) and David Cronenberg
• Trailer

❉ ‘eXistenZ’ made it’s Blu-Ray debut as a limited edition dual format release from 101 Films on 21 May 2018, RRP £15.99. Orderly direct from 101 Films: Order here from 101 Films

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