Cronenberg thriller filled with paranoia

Review: The director with the creepy imagination doesn't disappoint with his view of the future in `eXistenZ.'

April 23, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Pity David Cronenberg. How was he, one of the most imaginative directors working in film today, supposed to know that his foray into the world of virtual reality would be eclipsed by a little movie called "The Matrix"?

Although "eXistenZ," Cronenberg's new movie about a virtual reality game gone awry, has its own creepy charms and humanist message, it can't help but pale in comparison to its predecessor's spectacular effects and dazzling action sequences.

In fact, the two are boon companions in what looks to be a spate of paranoid futuristic thrillers. Where "The Matrix" took its cues from such venerable traditions as Hong Kong gun ballets and comic books, "eXistenZ" harks back to film noir and squishy creature-infested B-movies. In their own pulpy way, these homages form a pretty comprehensive and often witty look at the traditions that have compelled audiences for the past century.

"eXistenZ" stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as Allegra Geller, a game designer working in the "near future," by which time game technology has become super-ultra- virtual and designers are worshiped like rock stars. During a demonstration of her new game, called eXistenZ, Allegra is almost assassinated.

Learning that a fatwah has been issued by an underground band of militant "realists," she tries to escape with the help of a naive marketing executive, Ted (Jude Law). When they take refuge in eXistenZ itself, fantasy and reality begin to blur in increasingly terrifying ways.

"eXistenZ" is a must-see for two groups of film-goers: Cyber-geeks badly in need of a fix who may want an alternative to their ninth viewing of "The Matrix," and Cronenberg fans who are curious to see what this master of the Cinema of Cruelty is up to these days.

The same man who invented medieval-looking gynecological instruments for "Dead Ringers" and gruesome car-crash fetishes for "Crash" has outdone himself here, especially in designing the games and their accessories.

In the future of Cronenberg's imagination, joysticks have been replaced by biomorphic "pods" that vaguely resemble human genitalia and are manipulated by erotic stroking. Players hook up by inserting an umbilical cord into a port in their lower backs. "They just pop your spine with a little hydro gun," Allegra assures Ted, who hasn't had a port put in. "It's like having your ears pierced."

"eXistenZ" is shot through with mordant humor, which often refers to the cinematic conventions Cronenberg is winking at (the country gas station that Allegra and Ted go to for help is called, appropriately enough, the Country Gas Station), and the ending is a doozy. He even makes a joke at his own expense: a hard-core virtual reality store features a game called "Hit by a Car."

"eXistenZ" isn't as slick as "The Matrix." Rather than soar into the rarefied ether of cyber-space, it gets into the primordial ooze that makes it go. But both movies exploit the paranoid suspicion that, the more completely we escape reality, the more endangered we become.

No one is more qualified than Cronenberg to play this idea out with sticky, gooey and painfully vivid imagination.


Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe

Directed by David Cronenberg

Released by Dimension Films

Rated R for strong sci-fi violence and gore, and for language

Running time 90 minutes

Sun score: * *1/2

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