The Matrix, which explores the idea that our reality is simply a shrewdly manipulated computer program, was 1999’s biggest film prior to May 19 – The Phantom Menace launch day – yet its dank sensibility (not to mention its dread of computers) in some ways represents an anti-Lucasian voice. (It’s not a lone voice, either; also released in May was The Thirteenth Floor, based on Daniel Galouye’s sci-fi opus Simulacron 3, which finds disaffected present-day scientists escaping into a digitally idealized vision of 1937 L.A.)
But The Matrix, for all its dire imaginings, finally succeeds thanks to its kinetic computer-enhanced fight sequences. It also gives the perverse impression that living obliviously in a virtual environment is not so bad, especially when the alternative is drifting in a grimy, claustrophobic vessel that looks like a castoff from Alien.
Leave it to David Cronenberg to truly go where no George Lucas wannabe has gone before. The Canadian filmmaker’s latest off-Hollywood offering, eXistenZ, takes its title from a virtual game that looks like no fun at all. But then neither does anything else in a Cronenberg movie. In films like Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, and Crash, the writer-director has explored variations on a central theme: the blurring lines between technology and biology.
The Matrix – in which Keanu Reeves’s navel swallows a mechanical bug, and his head gets fitted with a computer plug – touches on this conjunction, but for Cronenberg it’s an obsession. To enter the virtual world of eXistenZ, players must be fitted with a “bioport”: a hole at the base of the spine that recalls the talking anuses in the director’s Naked Lunch. The kidney-shaped game pod, which operates on fertilized frog cells and synthetic DNA, is a wriggling, cooing horror that star Jennifer Jason Leigh cuddles like an adored pet. An “umbycord” – exactly as it sounds – extends from the pod and plugs players into the game.
Production designer Carol Spier has been working with Cronenberg for years, and the visual universe that she and effects supervisor Jim Isaac (another Cronenberg veteran) create is consistent with previous works in the director’s oeuvre. The queasy-making elements – quivering manmade orifices, mutated amphibians that pop up mysteriously, a Chinese meal to put viewers off takeout forever – are contrasted with settings of antiseptic banality.
Spier calls the look “no look,” which of course is nothing but an extreme look. The sets offer few clues as to time and place, and blur the distinctions between virtual and “actual” planes of existence. The film opens in a spare country church, and progresses to locations – a gas station, a motel room, an abandoned ski chalet – of unsettling Edward Hopper simplicity. What’s off in these settings? No phones, no TVs, and most significantly, no computer monitors. (The body is the communication tool.) What we’re seeing could be the near future, or a parallel present. Or not really there at all.
The narrative instructs the viewer that the game world is being entered, and then proceeds to confound one’s expectation of a stylistic shift. There’s a neon-lit game emporium, but it’s nearly as low-tech as all the other settings in eXistenZ, and a frog-gutting factory is just a fouler version of a pod laboratory seen earlier. Leigh’s character, the eXistenZ designer, has had a price put on her head by a game-hating “Realist Underground.” Yet it’s unclear why anyone would want to play, and how in fact one wins. Perhaps in a world as robbed of color and detail as Cronenberg’s, any change of scenery is desirable.
The movie’s commitment to alienating its audience certainly represents an alternative to the crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics of The Matrix, but ultimately, and tritely, eXistenZ is about that old dichotomy: reality versus illusion. Even so, the film’s sterile, bare-boned landscape won’t leave one’s head. Spier’s designs are so pared down that they read as metaphor – for a hospital ward, say, where bodies are probed and eruptions of blood and viscera periodically stain the polished surfaces. Certainly Cronenberg taps into fears of both disease and medical science. His favored steel-blue palette could even be inspired by glintings from bedpans and surgical instruments.
Or maybe it’s simply that north-of-the-border light. Whether or not Cronenberg defines a Canadian aesthetic, I have trouble imagining most of his movies being produced anywhere else. After all, this is the guy who brought Naked Lunch to a Toronto studio, and put a chill into Tangier.