Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh in <em>eXistenZ</em>

The opening credits of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (yup, that’s how you spell it) suggest anything but a virtual reality thriller. Earthy textures emerge from the darkness again and again, sometimes overlayed with anatomical drawings that recall the opening titles of Cronenberg’s last great film, Dead Ringers (1987). Coupled with a characteristically somber theme from Howard Shore, it’s an efficient introduction to the ensuing yarn, which deals in organic, rather than silicon gadgetry.

Cronenberg follows on those first impressions with a deviously imagined scenario postulating game designer as celebrity and imagining virtual reality as a politically charged arena where freedom-fighting “realists” take up arms against the creators of these fully inhabited worlds (call them “eXistenZialists,” I guess). Humans access the new breed of interactive game by installing a bioport — that’s a hole drilled into your spine, right at the small of your back. Those bioports are then connected, by a fleshy umbilican cord, to a game pod. That’s a specially bred handheld organism with fleshy nubs. It resembles a cross between a Nintendo controller and the breathing videotape from Videodrome, with sexual overtones.

In concept, this isn’t exactly cutting-edge stuff. The director of Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983), after all, is one of the few filmmakers for whom a hallucinatory virtual reality flick could be considred retro. What makes eXistenZ tick along nicely is its tongue-in-cheek quality. The typically Cronenbergian preoccupation with organs and bodily fluids is much in evidence, but this is the first time you can imagine the director standing just beyond the frame, smiling as he goes for the gross-out. There’s even a dollop of digital effects work, enabling the appearance of a benign mutant animal in one uncharacteristically gentle scene. And then there’s the showstopping prop centerpiece — a pistol made entirely of flesh and bone that fires human teeth. Only in Cronenberg, folks. Only in Cronenberg.

Despite such self-assured grandstanding, there’s a dramatic uneasiness to the film that I’m not sure is deliberate. The screenplay seems to aspire to the level of a clever thriller, complete with a surprise ending, but Cronenberg’s directing and editing rhythms, in tandem with the relentlessly expository dialogue, drag the film out of its suspense trajectory. Instead of cascading one on top of another, events transpire in their own good time. Nor is there any sense of urgency to the performances, which come from an able cast that seems to be kept off-balance for the duration.

As game designer Allegra Geller, the black-clad Jennifer Jason Leigh invests her geeky/sexy intellectual with a smoldering narcissism and playful intensity. Jude Law, probably the best thing in Gattaca, is completely disarmed as the hapless outsider who, when when he hooks up with Allegra, hasn’t even been fitted for a bioport. “I have this fear of having my body penetrated … surgically,” he explains. That line launches a sly joke that culminates in Law getting himself penetrated by a scruffy Willem Dafoe (of all people), playing a gas station attendant with some very advanced tools in the garage.

These early scenes are loaded with double entendres, most of them having to do with those very sphincter-like bioports and the penetration thereof. It’s not that you don’t expect a Cronenberg film to have a sexual text or subtext, it’s just that you don’t expect him to be so good-natured about it. Allegra gets to tease Ted mercilessly about his lack of gaming experience before, um, sticking her finger in his bioport; Ted gets his turn when he tongues Allegra’s orifice and then assures her that it was only his game character. By Cronenberg standards, this stuff is screwball comedy.

Also intriguing, if not particularly groundbreaking, are Cronenberg’s observations of the peculiar obsessions of gamers. It’s true that Allegra cradles her beloved game pod as though it were her child; it’s also true that her fixation on its health and welfare echoes the actions of kids who have lavished affection on their pocket Tamogotchis, little virtual reality pets that demand virtual love and attention else they grow sick and die. (More recently, the critters of choice are stuffed Furbys and fighting Pokemon monsters for Game Boy.) In spots, this is strong material — a long sequence set in a curiously off-kilter Chinese restaurant is vintage Cronenberg, just as the aforementioned gas station scene is surprisingly spirited.

What’s disappointing, however, is that Cronenberg’s first original screenplay in years is such a wholesale plundering of his own back catalog, Videodrome especially. While Videodrome, in its bold representation of a hallucinogenic invasion via the television airwaves, seemed to be offering censors and other hand-wringers something to really get frightened about, eXistenZ uses the same blurring of the line between fantasy and reality, particularly in an unconvincing final reel, to make a considerably less dangerous statement about the role of the artist and the significance of imagination.

Cronenberg has made it known that the character of Allegra Gellar, a renowned fantasist with a price on her head, was inspired by the exiled Salman Rushdie, to the point where one line in eXistenZ refers quite jarringly to a “fatwa” against her. In context, however, the association seems a little silly and maybe even self-important on Cronenberg’s part — certainly nothing we see suggests that any of these virtual reality games has much of a social or political component. If the point is that real-world attacks on artists stem from a fear of imagination itself, with social and political motivations serving as mere pretext, well, point taken — but the overly elaborate narrative on display here doesn’t really serve to illuminate that point. As Cronenberg goes, this one is just for fun.

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