eXistenZ is that most curious of works within any clearly defined filmmakers body of material: the transitionary picture. The proto-cyberpunk/virtual reality thriller makes for a very clear punctuation point between the director’s early and late periods. The cerebral of now combines with the visceral of then. That eXistenZ sits between as diverse a pair of works as 1996’s Crash, and 2002’s Spider is one thing, but that it fits there perfectly is quite another. That the film draws upon themes as far back as Videodrome, and subverts them for the end of a century pushes the work very clearly in to a meta-territory where the brain meets the body in a way quite like no other in the director’s filmography.
Before moving on to eXistenZ let’s step back and take a look at the bilateral career of Cronenberg. His early, arguable most beloved period saw the Canadian filmmaker define the body horror sub-genre with films like The Fly, Rabid and Dead Ringers, while the post-millenial Cronenberg oeuvre revolves largely around the mental (as opposed to the physical), the performer Viggo Mortensen, and consists of the majority of the director’s works produced outside of North America (Vienna and London provide the backdrop to three of the five films produced in this period, prior to 2002 the director had only shot one film outside of Canada and the United States, 1993’s M. Butterfly). eXistenZ sees a melding of the mind and the body, the early themes and the later, making it the ultimate transitionary picture for one of the worlds most intriguing filmmakers.
In a manner rather similar to how Cronenberg’s twin approaches to the cinema line up in eXistenZ, the twin entertainments of video games and mainstream cinema are brought together in the film itself. In 2012 the two mediums are clearly entwined, synergy rules, making it easy to underestimate just how much Hollywood struggled to latch on to the then-rising star of hobbies and entertainment with any real sense of authority or understanding back in the early days of gaming. That the cinema is a form of virtual reality in itself makes for this struggle to be all the more confusing. In terms of early attempts to capture the video-game aesthetic on-screen Brett Leonard’s Lawnmower Man underwhelmed, somehow managing to feel dated as before it hit theatres, while Johnny Mnemonic saw the future Neo starring in one of the great financial disappointments of the era. The annals of the American film industry are littered with failures that tried to capture the essence of the video-game, and for every moderate success (The Last Starfighter) there’s five of the calibre of The Wizard. Yet, in 1999 all that changed. To an extent. While The Matrix, the greater commercial success of that year went on to redefine the blockbuster and inspire a franchise that eventually imploded in on itself, it was the lesser known film of the two that translated the core mechanics of the video gaming experience with a greater degree of success.
Cronenberg’s success lies with the translation of the video-gaming medium to that of the cinema, and the manner in which he immediately presents the former medium as one ground in the organic, as opposed to the technical, with a refrain that remains present throughout the picture. From the opening credits of the film, in which the human anatomy merges with maps and circuit boards to create an unrecognisable collage, through to the guns made of bone used to commit acts of virtual destruction, via that all important “living” console that acts as the “players” gateway to the experience, Cronenberg is very keen to portray the virtual as an animate, breathing extension of the mental. Such trailing was actually rather prescient, with the film preceding such corporate jingoisms as Sony’s “Emotion Engine” and modern body-enabled devices such as the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft’s Kinect, which encourage the user to dedicate their whole body to the cause of saving the world/winning the World Series/Paccing Men. The structure of the film, and the layered realities within the movie gives Cronenberg the perfect sandpit in which to play with what is real and natural from the off. There’s an emphasis on the sexual, with the common Cronenbergian insistence that the sexual equals the alive. It’s explicitly stated that sex heightens the emotional connection between the viewer/the user/the player and the experience.
We’re well aware of how obvious and even contrived it might sound to declare a relatively poorly received science-fiction film (commercially at least) as “ahead of its time” but it’s apt here. The disciples of the lead female protagonist, Allegra Geller, meet in a church, anticipating the cult of technology. Microsoft was bracing itself for the Millennium Bug (Windows 98 ruled the world), with the future technology behemoth of Apple still on the cusp of cultural reappraisal. Mobile phones were just about commonplace, but the iPod and the digital lifestyle that that brought with it didn’t yet exist, while Grand Theft Auto was a top-down, 2D controversy that had yet to break through to the mainstream. Even EA’s FIFA series was still in the realm of the nerd, two years away from the breakthrough of the Playstation 2 and the Friday nights of socially acceptable gaming that that console brought with it. Organic tech, that learns from its user and the rise of the smartphone and the emotional relationship between man and device is now the everyday (it’s likely that many of you will be reading this essay on a machine with which you have an emotional bond), so much so that we barely notice it. Further prescience lies in the manner in which Cronenberg’s unit’s are even called pods, bringing to mind not only the device that would follow, but the place from which Apple’s product would lift its name (the ship in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the notion of the self-sustained, independent units that exist as a part of it). In Cronenberg’s virtual world, the odd man out is the one that isn’t tuned in and connected to the digital (Jude Law’s Ted (for Wurman’s TED presumably) does not have a bio-port, the manner by which a human connects to the mainframe). In fact, the digital is so well defined and interconnected that it no longer is digital, its a part of the human anatomy.