Fans of Canadian auteur David Cronenberg’s more ghoulish productions are likely to be disappointed by “eXistenZ,” in which the director playfully parodies some of his past obsessive horror outings. This is unquestionably Cronenberg Lite, but there is plenty of fun to be had from the absurdities and convoluted plotting, and a solid cast lends stature to the far-fetched fantasies. Still, mixture of blood-stained schlock and self-referential black humor poses a definite marketing challenge, and pic may ultimately find its audience in ancillary markets rather than in firstrun bookings.
This is the first time since “Videodrome” in 1982 that Cronenberg has written an original screenplay, and his inspiration of “eXistenZ” was, of all things, the fatwa placed by Iranian hard-liners on “Satanic Verses” author Salman Rushdie. Cronenberg imagines a time in the not too distant future when technology has made game-playing far more elaborate and exotic than the videogames we know today. The film’s amusing glossary includes references to a “MetaFlesh Game-Pod” which is attached by an “umbrycord” plugged into a “bioport” located at the base of the player’s spine. The player’s own energy supplies the power, and more than one player is connected to the same game; the game changes every time it’s played, and the players have difficulty deciding what’s real and what isn’t.
Pic opens with a seminar in which officials of Antenna Research, led by Levi (Christopher Eccleston) are about to test a brand new game, eXistenZ, which has been devised by the celebrated Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the world’s No. 1. game programmer and a super celebrity in her own right. To the excitement of the small audience present, Geller is taking part in the first demonstration of the new game. The handpicked guinea pigs are attached to the game’s driver, a pod that bears a striking resemblance to a living human organ. Just as the demonstration is beginning, a member of the audience produces a strange-looking gun and opens fire, wounding Geller and killing Levi. In the ensuing confusion, the assassin himself is killed and Geller escapes in the company of security guard Ted Pikul (Jude Law).
Fearful that the assassin is part of a fanatical anti-game group whose members believe in realism above all, and that there is a fatwa against Geller, the fugitives head for the countryside. But not before Pikul has extracted from Geller’s shoulder the “bullet” — which turns out to be a human tooth. Discovering that Pikul is so behind the times he doesn’t even have a bioport (he explains that he has a phobia about having his body penetrated surgically), Geller insists he immediately be given one, and the pair stop at a country gas station for this purpose (bioports, it seems, are inserted by motor mechanics). But the mechanic at this out-of-the-way place, amusingly played by Willem Dafoe, proves to be less than trustworthy.
This is the first of a series of strange encounters experienced by Pikul and Geller as they flee from the realism fanatics and from agents of Antenna’s rival, Cortical Systematics. Matters are complicated by Geller’s insistence that they check to see if her precious pod (her “baby,” she calls it), which contains the only original copy of eXistenZ, is still in working order. Hooking both herself and the reluctant Pikul to the experimental game means that the pair are never quite certain what’s real and what isn’t — and neither is the viewer.
Cronenberg has always been fascinated by the links between sex and horror, and many of his films, including “Shivers,” “Rabid” and “The Brood,” have dealt explicitly with the sexual connotations of nasty entities that invade the human body. In “eXistenZ” he parodies those films with outrageously sexual jokes and cheerfully sadistic bloodletting, most of it involving strange creatures that seem to be mutant reptiles and amphibians. Though there is a certain amount of suspense to be derived from the plight of the fugitive protagonists, the film plays mainly as an outrageously over-the-top, at times blood-soaked, comedy.
Jason Leigh, in one of her most attractive recent performances, enters cheerfully into the spirit of the exercise, as does Law as her unwilling collaborator. Holm is hilarious as a heavily accented scientist, and Canadian helmer Don McKellar, as a fanatical Russian revolutionary, steals all his scenes. Cronenberg keeps the yuks quotient high, although the film gets a little repetitive and predictable in the later stages. Still, it comes together smartly in the fiercely funny epilogue.
Visual and special effects are in the capable hands of Jim Isaac, and cinematographer Peter Sushitzky does his customary professional work. Howard Shore’s music perfectly complements the mood Cronenberg has established.
While diehard Cronenberg fans may prefer him in a more seriously scary mood, “eXistenZ” is for the most part an appetizing mixture of laughs and mayhem.