David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ is one in a long line of meta-films that uses its Russian-doll texture to dissect cinema as an art form, revealing its conceits and forcing viewers to reckon with what it means to sit down and watch a movie. Building its story around a network of video-game virtual realities, eXistenZ depicts the traditional filmic narrative as a technology in itself, and in that respect, it has a point. The clichés and formulas that go into constructing the plots, scripts and characters of too much of what we see today can be and have been read—rather glibly, I will admit—as “machines,” and it is not difficult to criticize Hollywood in its current incarnation as a “factory,” or an “assembly line.” One of the goals of eXistenZ is to satirize this idea by reconceiving bad films as technology gone awry; shallow characters, absurd genre tropes, clunky dialogue, deer-in-the-headlights non-reactions and preposterous accents are all given a computer-glitch veneer. This is clever, but what the film often forgets is that there’s a human element to art. What it means to look like a riff on bad acting and storytelling comes off as laziness and a lack of inspiration that uses its badness as an excuse to nudge the audience into reflecting on cinema as a construction.
The film opens in an old church, where a Greek chorus of twelve volunteers get in a semicircle onstage to test out eXistenZ, the hot new console from shy, reclusive gaming wunderkind Allegra Gellar (a miscast Jennifer Jason Leigh). I take “Allegra” to be the feminine of allegro, the Italian tempo marking for “lively,” somewhat fast compositions; the name here is a misnomer. Cronenberg moves his stories along at a slow, methodical, deep-rumbling pace, and with this material, he is hampered by it. As the introduction proceeds, a would-be assassin rises screaming “Death to the demoness!”, shoots her in the shoulder and gets dispatched by security guards while chaos consumes the place. At the lumbering pace it goes, it’s hardly convincing; in real life, one imagines, the assassin would be taken down before getting the word “demoness” out of his mouth, and the audience would be even more frantic (Cf. Malcolm X’s death in the Spike Lee biopic). All the actors look stiff-jointed, as if they’re swimming in Drano.
Allegra is rescued by officer Ted Pikul (the usually reliable Jude Law), who takes out the bullet and hides her in a motel. Filmed in rural parts of Ontario on a $15-million budget, eXistenZ does not quite achieve a plausible science-fiction environment, limiting itself as it does to the church, cheap motels, a skiing chalet, a trout farm, a mall that looks obviously in-studio, a dated van, and a dated gas station/garage—and when I say “dated,” I mean dated even by present standards. Yes, I get that the future will still have its undeveloped backwoods, and yes, I get that Allegra, with the fatwa on her head, would want to hold demo sessions far removed from urban metropolises. Even then, the mismatch is jarring, and I was left wondering how the hell such a vibrant gaming culture found its way into north Ontario (Cf. the way Kubrick suggested the future with just some judicious location choices in A Clockwork Orange). There’s still some gnarly world-building to make up for that, thankfully: the two-headed reptiles, the guns made of bones (with teeth for bullets), the pulsing fleshy gaming pods, and of course the vaginal bio-ports (a classic Cronenberg motif) inserted just above the tailbone, into which the pods’ umbilical cords go.
Allegra needs to enter her game to make sure it survived the assassination attempt, and she needs Ted to join her. Much fuss is spent on how Ted is a hesitant gaming virgin who needs his bio-port installed. The two head to a gas station attendant (Willem Dafoe, a rare breed of actor who will do pretty much anything) who installs pods on the side with what looks like an uber-industrial gas canister. He seems to worship Allegra, then turns on her. The film takes way too long to get us into the eXistenZ universe, and when it does, that’s when the acting starts getting very deliberately ham-fisted. Exhibit A: the scene in which Allegra and Ted discover that their characters share an intense sexual attraction. It is beside the point that this ruins the male-female friendship that is so often ruined in movies when the filmmakers give in to the temptation to have their lead actor and actress shag each other. Notice how Law and Leigh go back and forth between two modes of acting—them figuring out their characters, and their characters walking the walk to first base. A more authentic situation would have a liminal phase in between, in which the boundaries between personas are tested and muddled, but the actors, talented as I know they are, don’t bother with this. Exhibit B: in a Chinese restaurant, Law eats a cooked twin reptile and builds a gun out of its skeleton. He claims that it tastes disgusting and that he’s fighting his character’s urge to eat it and construct the gun but he’s failing poorly. Law’s poor acting shows no evidence of a genuine struggle, though; the whole time, we watch him merely tearing reptile flesh off the bone as if it were a tasty buffalo wing, and talking casually about the horror of it.
I could go on, and if I started now about the parts where the characters turn into frozen bodies shouting icy-venomous villainous platitudes, I wouldn’t stop. Granted, there are some strong performances on the sidelines: Ian Holm as a Russian surgeon focused on fixing diseased and wounded pods; Callum Keith Rennie, juggling multiple roles as seamlessly as one would expect Law and Leigh to; Oscar Hsu, doing all he can as a stereotyped Chinese waiter; and Sarah Polley, doing all she can in her very limited screen time. But that’s not enough to push this film above water. At the point when it ought to be devolving into disturbing incoherence, the story instead devolves into a somewhat straightforward shoot-‘em-up, ending with an inexplicable betrayal, followed by an absolute cop-out of a twist that negates the whole film, which itself turns out to be a lame false ending. Making a meta-film that lampoons cinema is not an excuse for subpar acting and a subpar story; there are great meta-films (Bergman’s Persona, for one) that have stripped cinema bare while retaining great performances and refusing to toss story to the wind. I’m on a downward trajectory with Cronenberg. First, I watched A History of Violence, which is a masterpiece; then Eastern Promises, which is fine; then Dead Ringers, which is masterful right up until its lackluster ending; then this, which is a disappointment. Someone please tell me which of his I should watch next.