Sunday, 27 March 2011
Starring: Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Don McKellar, Willem Dafoe
By Alan Bacchus
This is an honourable failure for David Cronenberg. Coming after the curiosity-seeking art houser Crash, at a glance eXistenZ appeared to have been a mainstream antidote to the niche audience of that other film. It comes from an original script from Cronenberg, his first since Videodrome (1983) and we indeed get all of the kooky bio horror we expect from the Baron of Blood, but excessively-loopy plotting and some truly oddball and inconsistent performances results in an unevenness which fails the film.
Set in the future, Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a new age game designer – virtual reality-type games played via the organic processes of the body. She is demonstrating a new version of her game to a test group. Allegra’s new gaming techniques have made her a celebrity, but she has also created a legion of radical dissidents called “Realists”, who disapprove of the unethical aspects of the game. The “Realists” infiltrate the test and manage to kill off a few of the gamers, but Allegra and her PR man, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), manage to escape. While on the run, Allegra and Ted enter the game to try and recover lost data from the disruption (I think).
The design of the game system is classic Cronenberg – organic materials made from body parts of other animals. Repairs to the game pod are performed like surgery by doctors. The connection between mind and body and the sensory experience of the game is a thought-provoking and somewhat plausible scenario. These are just the peripherals to the story though; the actual narrative plot of the film feels terribly recycled and uneventful.
Allegra and Ted’s journey takes them through a “Grand Theft Auto”-like world of smarmy villains and double-agents. Together they must navigate their way through the game and back into reality. Sufficient jeopardy and stakes for Ted and Allegra are never there because we know they’re in the game, and despite all the manufactured rules, we know they can always get out of the gaming world.
The timing wasn't good for Cronenberg. After The Matrix and Dark City, the concept is not as progressive as it may have sounded in development. We can clearly see how the film will end and predict the twists. The climax, which involves a badly staged and acted confrontation with Callum Keith Rennie, Jude Law and Ian Holm, feels as if the filmmakers were rushing to shoot the scene and get all the information wrapped up that one night. And, of course, the film makes a left turn in the final moments, which is supposed to surprise us, but instead becomes predictable in its unpredictability.
And despite one erotic scene, we don’t even get to see Jennifer Jason Leigh get it on with Jude Law. Considering Cronenberg’s track record, that was the only unexpected twist – no kinky sex.