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*** Stars
(US 1999) Rated R

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe

Directed by David Cronenberg

Writing credits: David Cronenberg

Dimension Films * 97 minutes

David Cronenberg's latest goo-fest, eXistenZ, is a one-star movie with a five-star payoff. Packed with an A-list cast, it's another multiple-levels-of-reality concept, a companion piece to THE MATRIX for spring theatregoers. Someone I know once told me about a dream in which her psychiatrist smiled at her benevolently and said enigmatically, "Things are not what they seem." That certainly applies to eXistenZ.

leigh.jpg - 26233 ByteseXistenZ is a game system based on technology so advanced that it has a life of its own. Developed by "game goddess" Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh, and it's nice to see a FEMALE geek for once), its unveiling has gathered a gaggle of game geeks eager to take it for a test drive. The game is described as "ultimate adventure -- one that will forever shatter the line that separates wild and unpredictable fantasy from reality." Accessed via a "bioport" plugged directly into the player's spine, its control module is a "game pod" -- an archetypically Cronenbergian device that resembles something somewhere between a deformed breast, something out of an ALIEN movie, and a fetus.

w_levi.jpg - 6756 BytesJust as quickly as it begins, the fantasy ends when an anti-eXistenZialist protester fires a strange weapon that looks like a Thanksgiving turkey carcass, killing the seminar leader and wounding Geller. Before dying, the seminar leader (Christopher Eccleston, reprising his Brooklyn Hasid dialect from A PRICE ABOVE RUBIES), assigns security guard/PR geek Ted Pikul (Jude Law) to take Geller to safety.

The unlikely duo seek shelter and escape from the anti-eXistenZialists, but Geller insists that the only way to ensure that Antenna Research's $38 million investment in her game has not been corrupted in the damaged pod is to "play the game with someone friendly." gas.jpg - 32057 BytesThis sets up some quasi-sexual imagery as Pikul reluctantly assents to having a bioport installed, batting his eyelashes and stating "I have this phobia bout having my body penetrated -- surgically." This imagery involves Willem Dafoe doing his best to imitate Jack Nicholson, as "Gas" -- a gas station attendant who has a side business installing bioports with a bizarre array of ever-larger nailguns on steroids. The homoerotic subtext is piled on with a backhoe.

Once Pikul's bioport is installed, the two begin playing the game (which resembles the kind of multiple-decision scenario I first saw over 30 years ago in Christopher Cerf's book THE WORLD'S LARGEST CHEESE), which takes place in a world where nothing -- and no one -- is what or who they seem to be. law_leigh3.jpg - 26606 BytesWhat is common in this world is mucus -- lots of mucus. It seems to cover everything -- weapons, the mutated animal parts used to make game ports, the food in a Chinese restaurant. Mucus and goo are Cronenberg trademarks, and they are liberally utilized here. However, the other visuals are nicely done, and the film has perhaps the best-looking opening credits sequence I've seen in a long time. Howard Shore's malevolent score almost makes me forget my image of him with his "all-nurse" band on Saturday Night Live many years ago, playing "St. Louis Blues" alongside chanteuse Lily Tomlin.

holm.jpg - 35050 BytesThe performances are almost uniformly good, although they may not seem so at the time. Eccleston, who opens the film, is a fine actor and master of accents. His Brooklyn bit seems more forced and less natural than in last year's outing, and his lines are terrible, but for a good reason that becomes clear later on. (I can't help but have a sense that this man's career is in danger of being defined by Hollywood suits hollering, "I need a Jew! Get me that British guy with the big nose!") Jude Law, who is merely adequate, uses an American dialect which similarly comes and goes. But there's a reason. Willem Dafoe chews the scenery even more than usual. But there's a reason. Ian Holm, as a game pod surgeon, speaks in the thickest eastern European accent of indeterminate origin you'll ever hear. But there's a reason.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, looking more like dad Vic Morrow every year, is appropriately creepy, but always understated. A little in-joke has her enter the game clad in a skin-tight outfit in which she resembles closely her prostitute character from LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN.

mckellar.jpg - 33100 BytesBut the film is utterly stolen by Don McKellar, who has clearly drawn on the late Alexander Goudenov's narcissistic Russian in THE MONEY PIT for his delicious portrayal of Yevgeni Nourish, a slaughterhouse worker who is also not what he seems.

The film is rife with inconsistencies -- sloppy, amateurish inconsistencies: If the gun used to wound Geller uses human teeth as bullets, how does it kill the seminar leader? If Antenna Research has $38 million invested in eXistenZ, why haven't they made an off-site backup? Why do these fine actors seem often to be doing such a lousy job? Is this really scripted as badly as it seems? Even Geller seems to notice it, when she observes of one character, "He's not a very well-drawn character, and his accent is so-so." At times, these clunkers make the film hard to watch. I couldn't help but wonder why anyone thought this was film had any merit at all.

But there's a reason.

See it. Stick with it. It'll pay off. I promise.

eXistenZ official site
eXistenZ trailer

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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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