A Film by David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg has had a fascinating career. From Grade-C gunk like The Brood he managed to ooze his way up to borderline respectability with Scanners. That movie not only established Cronenberg as a quirky new talent in horrific cinema, it also gave us a first look at themes that would dominate much of his work to come: drugs, mind control, the metamorphosis of humanity, the Corporate Monster. With Videodrome, the list of Cronenberg’s obsessions was complete: add sex and the reality-bending power of the media. His idiosyncratic adaptation of The Fly was masterful in its evocation of Faustian pathos. Dead Ringers, while his most disturbing film up to that time, nevertheless gave him a firm foothold in the mainstream. Naked Lunch was a film only Cronenberg could have made: a successful adaptation of William S. Burrough’s blistering, hallucinatory novel of literary madness, homosexuality and drugs. M. Butterfly was another ambitious attempt at the mainstream, tragically marred by the disastrous casting of John Lone and a lackluster performance by Jeremy Irons. And Crash, Cronenberg’s brilliant adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s dangerous novel of the same name, showed a filmmaker at the height of his twisted powers. These five later films, the quality core of Cronenberg’s oeuvre, all have one thing in common—they were based on somebody else’s work.

With eXistenZ, Cronenberg returns to writing his own script. And he returns to the old obsessions. This nightmare features hallucinatory media, shadowy corporations, mind control and techno-gore with an intensity we haven’t seen since Videodrome. eXistenZ puts us in a world where reality can’t be trusted, yet we come away from this movie knowing two things for certain: Cronenberg hasn’t really changed that much, and he shouldn’t write his own material—at least not dialog.

Amanda Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the foremost star in the world of total-immersion VR games. Her latest brainchild, eXistenZ, is designed to be played off a “game pod,” a machine that looks like a cross between an ameba and a Playstation. The game pod plugs right into a “bioport” in the player’s spine. During a sneak preview of eXistenZ, Geller is attacked by a would-be assassin and thrust into a running nightmare of corporate conspiracy, perverted bioengineering, disease and delusion. Grotty characters wander through this landscape, mouthing stilted dialog when they aren’t cutting up mutated amphibians or shooting each other with meat pistols. And we haven’t run very far with Geller and her unwilling bodyguard (Jude Law) before we realize that their biggest problem may be that the dividing line between the game and reality is getting seriously blurry.

This, of course, is a story that’s been hacked by everybody from Rod Serling to Pat Cadigan. Yet despite the well-worn plot riff, the sometimes awful dialog, and Howard Shore's abysmal soundtrack (especially disappointing in light of the masterful work Shore did on Naked Lunch and Crash), I’m going to recommend eXistenZ, with reservations. Why? It boils down to that pungent Cronenberg flavor. You either like his cooking, or you don’t. I do. Cronenberg’s unique brand of “venereal horror” always gets my juices flowing. While eXistenZ is far from his best work, it tells that very old story as only Cronenberg could tell it, with flavors I guarantee you won’t find anywhere else. The film is forcefully paced and engrossing, crammed with dripping, bleeding, oozing, mutating imagery. Willem Dafoe and Ian Holm turn in competent performances as two very different breeds of psychopath. And the scene in the Chinese restaurant is guaranteed to put you off your chow mein for at least a month.

Videodrome meets X-Box. Sullydog approves.

Sullydog Approves.

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