The Warnings of eXistenZ Reverberate 25 Years Later

Movies Features David Cronenberg
The Warnings of eXistenZ Reverberate 25 Years Later

“It’s a sign of the times,” game creator Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) says as she admires a two-headed lizard. It’s a product of the new genetic coding frontier of which she is a prime architect. With a quick surgery (available at a store, mall or gas station near you), Allegra’s hot new video game, eXistenZ, offers a new escape from banality with an immersive virtual reality experience that makes it impossible to discern the game from your real life. 25 years ago, before we could plaster our phone screens on goggles or control a joystick with our minds, David Cronenberg gave us this realm with eXistenZ. In this turn-of-the-century video game movie, the body horror virtuoso foreshadows a grim future in which humanity is torn between realism and simulation—and 25 years later, his sci-fi vision seems not too distant from our modern dilemmas surrounding artificial intelligence.

The surreal sci-fi of 1999’s eXistenZ plays with media and unnatural methods of escapism in a similar manner as Cronenberg’s earlier film Videodrome, in which a money-hungry TV president investigates the thin veil separating fiction from reality on a sadistic television hit. The Crimes of the Future and Crash director enacts corporeal horrors on his characters to warn us, the audience, about our eager engagement with technology. eXistenZ is no exception, with its hysteria-inducing biotech asking us how far we will go to escape reality before reaching a point of no return. 

Users enter the eXistenZ realm via a living gamepod (essentially a PlayStation controller made of animal organs), which is fed through an “umby cord” into a bioport in their lower back. It sounds disgusting, but gamers will jump at a chance to play the revolutionary game from the visionary Allegra, famed as the world’s leading game creator—or “demoness,” depending on who you ask. When Allegra playtests her burgeoning creation in a church full of eager guinea pigs, an undercover naysayer (a “realist”), tries to assassinate her with a bone gun that shoots human teeth, thus launching Allegra on a hideout mission clinging to her gamepod and her impromptu security detail, Ted Pikul (Jude Law). 

As the pair venture away from the attack, Ted grows curious about the invention while Allegra tends to her gamepod like a living, breathing creature that she’s desperate to keep alive; with no backup copy, the death of the game would mean a multimillion dollar loss. To ensure the host is stable, Allegra must play the game with somebody friendly; “Are you friendly, or are you not,” she asks the skeptical Ted, who eventually trusts his companion that truly, it’s all a game. The road to eXistenZ is a bumpy one, however, with Ted falling victim to a faulty bioport installation by a side-of-the-road mechanic (Willem Dafoe) who tried to carry out a hit on Allegra, despite claiming that the game changed his life.

Ted and Allegra don’t step into the video game realm until about halfway through eXistenZ, and the transition isn’t as jarring as one might expect. In Cronenberg tradition, the ritual is oddly erotic, as the characters recline on the bed, plug in and share a sensual yet uncomfortable exchange as their souls venture forth into the game map. The characters come upon a store where, just like in most video games, they can buy equipment they might need along the way—including a mini port, which is required to play. The drab virtual world mimics an early-gen RPG that employs stationary NPCs to shuffle characters from one task to the next, a la ‘90s-born franchises like Elder Scrolls. A lot of the movie’s meaty, sweaty body horror takes place in-game, showing a port factory and a brief diner scene where characters are subject to a mystery meat “special.” 

It doesn’t take long for the distance from the real world to make Ted sweat, anxious to make sure that his physical body is still in one piece. When Ted pauses the game, he no longer feels real, still tethered to the eXistenZ plane with Allegra (who, even as the creator, cannot make out the game from reality while connected). Allegra promises Ted that the world will feel natural, but something just feels off. With the speedy development of both virtual reality and artificial intelligence, it feels like the world that Cronenberg envisioned is on the horizon a quarter-century later. The trancelike realm of eXistenZ—a replication of real life that feels unnatural for those inside it—carries similarities to the lifeless, artificial flavor of AI imagery and entertainment.

eXistenZ presages many fears that we hold now about advancing augmented reality tech. The film’s battle, of Allegra versus the “realists,” mirrors our modern discourse about artificial intelligence. On the gaming front, virtual reality goggles have not quite reached the software to send users’ subconscious into a hyper-real simulated world, but we’re getting there. While several brain-computer devices sit on the horizon, the tech still feels far from everyday, ubiquitous use. Still, it seems that the themes of eXistenZ are not only a prophecy for video games, but about our overall interaction with artificial reality. Many people (namely high-profile tech developers, like Allegra) seem ready to head full force into the AI frontier, while many artists and workers remain hesitant, committed to upholding human creativity. Resistance to the unknown bounds of artificial reality is inevitable and, for many reasons represented in the film, necessary. Foretelling our blurred lines of reality and simulation, eXistenZ serves as a prophetic warning that such inventions have already altered our world. As Allegra puts it, “it’s a game everybody’s already playing.”

Sage Dunlap is a journalist based in Austin, TX. She currently contributes to Paste as a movies section intern, covering the latest in film news.

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