eXistenZ — Capital X, Capital Z. The game of games. Cronenberg’s bridge between the squishy-squeamy sex-pest films of his breakout career and the clinical, cool, under-the-knife approach of his later artistic period- and, above all else, an enormous lie.
Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh carry the plot as prime game designer Allegra Geller (Jason Leigh) and somewhat inept security guard / intern Ted Pikul (Law) escape from a flesh-gun wielding assassin known as a “Realist”, with Pikul both trying to protect Geller and work within her demands and Geller focused solely on her “pod”, a pink fleshy mass which contains the only copy of her game eXistenZ. These pods can only be interfaced by inserting an umbilical cord, or something close to it, in the base of your spine, a “bioport”.
Bioports see a lot of screentime here, as something goes wrong with Pikul’s, twice, after it’s freshly installed by the beautifully predatorial Gas (Willem Dafoe). There’s constantly an issue with the bioports in the film. They get “nervous”, they have to be lubricated, they have to be disinfected, Pikul starts to make out with Geller’s after some new fleshware is installed- the list goes on. The complexes about the bioport are so intense that they eventually become the death of Pikul’s character as Geller plants a bomb in his port disguised as a disinfecting device — a poetic note as one of the first thing we learn about Pikul is that he doesn’t have one due to a “fear of penetration”.
The Pikul character is so gay-coded it borders on comedy. “I’ve always had perfect teeth”. Nervousness about his physical body while in the game, the lack of a firearm for a security guard, resisting the urge to become romantically involved with Geller while on a quest, while Geller says “give in, it’s an urge from the game”. Constant suspicion and revulsion towards the embryonically pink gaming pods, while Geller revels in her own creation, playing footsie with the umbilical tether when the two of them take a pause from the game. This isn’t the first time Cronenberg has alluded to, and understated, those sexual neuroses in his later films (wonderfully grungy Vincent Cassel in Eastern Promises, Sigmund Freud, etc.) It’s hard not to read Pikul’s bioport installation sequence as some kind of sexual encounter gone wrong, with Gas at the Country Gas Station wielding an enormous jackhammer-like device to blast a tiny little hole at the base of Pikul’s spine. Pikul laid over the edge of a recliner with his pants askew, paralyzed (“It comes with its own epidural!”), the bioport being of course installed incorrectly and zapping Geller’s little embryo, and Pikul exacting revenge on Defoe’s character by blasting a hole through his neck with the bioport-installing device after Gas threatens Geller with a shotgun.
Speaking of, the whole construction of the plot swings wildly from either total level-design convenience (the local Country Gas Station does, in fact, have “Country Gas Station” in large block letters in the building) or baffling dream-logic, with things appearing and disappearing, correlating and inter-correlating in ways that don’t necessarily make sense but that we’re supposed to trust. The entering-the-game-pod scene is magnificent, as things simply start appearing in the frame until a new scene is complete, and Geller and Pikul in different haircuts to remind us that we’re someplace else. Common elements also weave in — recurring characters, items, the dog submerging and surfacing through each level of “game” we’re exposed to (yes, this is a dog movie). After all, after the Country Gas Station we’re in on the joke, right? We know that Geller and Pikul are in a game of their own making, before even they re-enter the supposedly repaired game pod. The same mutated aquatic creatures that Pikul butchers in the second level of the game become the dish they eat at the Chinese Restaurant, the tooth-firing flesh gun that appears in the first segment and that Pikul assembles from his Special (murdering the Chinese Waiter), and are spare parts for the production of the game pods. A sustainable, single-source initiative, straight from a chthonian swamp to your dinner table and post-meal entertainment.
So we can swallow it straight down with the final scene — Game Boy Advance SP-colored mechanical apparatus on everyone’s head, the actors returning to their native accents, and the script reversed to Law and Jason-Leigh being Realist, anti-game actors, assassinating game leaders — or should we believe that there’s any kind of correlation between the final reveal and all the rest of the game we just played? I think we would be foolish not to see the dog providing firearms again, and also foolish to see that the film could have easily ended with Geller half-celebrating her victory — “I did it- right?”
Here’s the lie. Cronenberg states that the movie was inspired after a fatwa was issued on the life of Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses. This is ultimately true, and we can read it as the story of persecuted Geller on its face. But it is us- we, the audience- from Geller’s perspective — taking on the eyes of the hunter rather than the hunted. The entire film is a game-empathy-exercise from the unconscious of Geller before she and her accomplice prepare to murder the game designers. The game pods in the bulk of the film are embryonic and umbilical — sharply contrasted to the spiky, smooth, shiny technology of the final scene. And it cannot evade our notice that all our characters are “knocked out” of the game, with even Jude Law’s character being murdered at the end, and Geller’s killer instinct prevailing. And masterfully, the dog carrying the real bullet-firing handguns in the real world, having left his flesh guns safely behind in the dream / game. We could even go as far as to say that all the sexual pathologies surrounding Jude Law’s character stem from Geller’s own uncertainty about their real-world relationship- imploring him to “give in” to the romantic urges he has toward her.
If this is all too Freudian for you, I understand, but don’t hurry and run toward other alternate-reality films of the era. The Matrix, premiering the exact same year (1999), somehow gets mentioned in the same breath when talking about the game sequences, but the comparison I find disfavorable. In The Matrix, Neo starts enchanted by his own kind of pointless game, and is awoken, “redpilled”, to the truth of his world, and moves back and forth effortlessly with practice. With Cronenberg, the two protagonists were always disenchanted with their world, albeit subconsciously, and there’s always an understanding that things work within the game, their impressions do reach the outside world, instead of merely an attempt to “log off” forever. The space tread in eXistenZ has not been so thoroughly explored as the themes of The Matrix, especially when coexisting within the game has become the only way out — through. Our disconnection from the technological extension of our world does not number-crunch into some kind of humanist utopia. We start thrust into a game, and even if our supervisors find our ideas “dangerous”, “anti-game” — we play on.