There's a memorable moment during David Cronenberg's DVD commentary for eXistenZ when he seems genuinely aggrieved at those that deride his films for their 'graphic' and 'disgusting' visuals. Claiming that he never understood this reproach, Cronenberg goes on to explain how personally he would be fascinated to find out how new technologies and creatures 'worked' and 'operated', i.e. he would want to know what their insides looked like. This is Cronenberg the scientist at work here, an aspect of his filmmaking personality that created such memorable scenarios as mutant children powered by sheer hate in The Brood or the hallucinogenic oppressor controls of television signals in Videodrome. Cronenberg the philosopher is also on show, (the title is a clue, referring to the Existentialist philosophies of Heideggar and Sartre) touching on such subjects as the persecution of the artist versus freedom from censorship (he cites the Salman Rushdie controversy as an influence) and the ever-shifting states and relationship between reality and identity. However, and this is where detractors who dismissed eXistenZ as 'Cronenberg-Lite' miss the point completely, Cronenberg the entertainer is somewhat subdued. The film has depth, but little in the way of compelling and entertaining reasons to listen. Nothing here is as lurid and shocking as the visceral head explosion of Scanners, never did I feel as buried under the wealth of rich characterisation and genuine intimacy as expertly conveyed in Dead Ringers, and eXistenZ lacks that lingering terror that transforms Shivers, The Dead Zone, The Fly, Crash and so forth from highly entertaining horror movies to powerful cautionary tales, fairy tales for the modern age.
I don't care if your name is David Lynch, Derek Jarman, God or Andy Warhol, if your film is not completely stimulating entertainment, all the subtexts, political insight, nuances and sparks are mostly useless. Entertainment is an essential, an imperative. Boredom, lapses in the fun and plain dullness are your enemies. eXistenZ never plummets to a point when the skip button looks like a beacon of hope, but for such a cracking premise attached to such a complex and intelligent director, the offerings are a little meagre. What should have been a headfucking trip is more of a pedantic stroll through some intriguing, half-realised ideas.
In some ways Cronenberg's never less than interesting film is conceptually flawed, the plot just doesn't quite sit right. This imperfection is both frustrating and frequently lamentable. Though loaded with great images, a well-handled sense of the comic, and superb production design from Cronenberg regular Carol Spier, the film has a fundamentally flawed glaringly obvious when a crucial plot point unfurls. I'll get you up to speed on the plot, and point out when that crucial moment strikes and the cracks begin to appear. In what feels like the future, a congregation of about twenty people are amassed to witness and get the first taste of game-designing mastermind Allegra Geller's (Leigh) new interactive wonderland. As a cameoing Christopher Eccleston introduces Geller to the stage a young man points an unusual looking gun towards her and proceeds to shoot. As the assailant is taken down by security, Geller teams up with an amateurish body guard called Ted Pikul (Law) and they escape from those in pursuit. Amidst an ongoing war between 'realists' who see the current state of gameplay as warping reality, and advocates and addicts of the game, there is a price on Geller's head and no-one (and importantly nowhere) can quite be trusted. After checking into a hotel Allegra discovers that her game has been damaged by the trauma of the past few hours, and in order to find out if its survived (the game is actually a living organism you see, plugged in through 'bio-ports' located at the back of the spine) the two of them must enter the game world. The dramatic Howard Shore music swells, the mood reaches its hands through the television and forces your eyes open Clockwork Orange style, the film looks like it's about to kick you hard in the brain… and we relocate to a trout farm. Not a sinister alternative reality delivered to you kicking and screaming like a typical Cronenberg mutant offspring, but a pretty normal farm used for trouting and so forth.
This is where things start unravelling, the taut opening with its surreal flourishes and morbidly menacing atmosphere is virtually reset so a new vastly inferior plot strand can emerge. It's like stopping Evil Dead 2 slap bang in the middle and replacing it with a Barbara Streisand movie, before perhaps realising somewhere along the line that 'Yentl' is no match for Ash, chainsaws, the undead and instantly quotable dialogue. The lapse occurs when Cronenberg should smear layers of story and character onto your brain, and this mis-timed transition is a knock the film never really recovers from. So, the big question is, considering the ferociously intelligent man behind the camera and the range of possibilities, why does he choose to delve deeper into his world in the location of a pretty dull trout farm? This is a tricky one, my guess is that Cronenberg is subverting our expectations of something grand and theatrical, exhibiting the multiple faces of reality, both thrilling and tedious. However, in quelling the excitement, he also loses focus and the game becomes less fun and far more artificial. This is typical of the rest of the film. I could list the number of fun particulars or playful nuances, but these are throttled of their potency with the very menial narrative which gets less and less intriguing the further it crawls. Even the whole overriding idea of reality acting like an indecisive Russian doll, shedding skins then putting them back on again to the point of confusion, is not really comprehensively covered. Where there could have been a potent metaphor or stinging undercurrent, the clumsy handling of a delicate point is highly detrimental to the film. Characters are inconsistent, the mystery never deepens, there's never a charged feel to the movie, whether that sensation is horror, disbelief, fascination or repulsion. The film feels slight on the entertainment front, as if the story, characters and plot development are merely facades so the plentiful themes can flourish. Cronenberg appears to have more ideas than story, and it shows.
Ultimately, the evolution of Cronenberg hits a bit of a slow spot here, its easy targets all covered lazily, without the Dystopia Now qualities of Crash or the schizophrenic-paranoia-as-film of Naked Lunch. eXistenZ is the only Cronenberg film that doesn't actively encourage you to squint at the screen equally repulsed and enthused, and is a noticeably tame effort from the man responsible for some of the most arresting thoughts my head has ever undergone. Watchable, interesting and at times clever, but never as good as it could have been.
A very impressive set. For your money you get three commentaries from the director of photography Peter Suschitzky, Cronenberg himself and the special effects department, a couple of utterly misleading trailers, a long documentary about the 'invisible art' of Carol Spier the production designer, and some strange Sega Dreamcast tie-in palaver. The real money shot here is Cronenberg as he sinks into his film, lacking the self-deprecating humour of Bruce Campbell and the technical mastery of Ridley Scott, but making it up for his highly intelligent and highly understandable trawl through the various levels of his film. There are several nuggets in the commentary (Cronenberg argues over whether the Gas bio-port scene is in fact a male rape allusion; 'but it's consensual' Cronenberg insists) but the overriding feeling that Cronenberg is in complete control of his work is both reassuring and kind of thrilling, exploring and admiring his creation as Allegra does hers.
To more mundane but essential areas, the sound and picture quality are both pristine and made my eyes and ears smile in appreciation. Overall, a very solid package.