Written and directed by David Cronenberg in 1999, eXistenZ may not hold the same level of critical acclaim as some of the director's other films - Videodrome and The Fly remake both come to mind. It is, however, a very original and well made mix of science fiction and horror delivered with Cronenberg's skewed stamp all over it.
The film follows one of the most influential game designers in the world, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is in the beta testing phase of her latest project, a revolutionary new virtual reality game called eXistenZ. This is no ordinary game, however, as it requires the use of a 'ports' to be inserted into the player through a hole in their own body along the lower spinal cord in order to work. The only working copy of the game exists in Allegra's own Metaflesh Game Pod, a throbbing and seemingly very alive device required for the game that connects to the aforementioned port. In order to do this she assembles a focus group to help test the project but is shortly thereafter attacked by an assailant wielding a very unusual gun that looks like it's made out of flesh.
Her life in danger, Allegra escapes with some help from a marketing department employee named Ted Pikul (Jude Law), who later takes on the role of her protector, but in the ensuing chaos Allegra's 'pod' gets damaged and she gets shot. When Ted removes what they figure was a bullet from her, it turns out to be a tooth. Something very strange is going on here. With the entire project at stake, Allegra convinces Ted to let her insert a port in his body so he that the two of them can play the game together. To do this they have to find a literal 'country gas station' and when they do, with some help from a guy named Gas (Willem Dafoe), they get Ted fixed up and ready. As they begin, strange things start to happen to the two of them and it soon becomes obvious that they can no longer tell what's happening in the 'real world' and what's happening inside eXistenZ. It all appears to be a scheme launched by Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm) , the owner of a rival gaming company, but nothing is as it seems.
Ignore the whole 'makes The Matrix look like Child's play' blurb that was all over the marketing for eXistenZ when it first came out (and continued with various home video releases) as outside of the virtual reality motif the films don't really have a whole lot of in common. This is Cronenberg, after all, and the body horror motif he's well known for is in full swing here. The film toys with sex throughout, from the insertion into the 'port' the bottom of the spine to the handling of the pods to pretty much everything in between but this is not a new addition to Cronenberg's world, though here it's somehow completely sexual without being completely sexual in the most literal of terminology. The metaphors are obvious and the way in which sexuality melds with technology and the human body in this film is telling, prophetic even. In a world where you can buy sex toys that connect and respond to our iPod (and create a very real physical reaction to an artificially induced sexual experience?), maybe what he's showing us in the film isn't so farfetched at all. This is heavy stuff, bizarre and unsettling but completely captivating and way more than a little bit thought provoking.
The film is pretty effects intensive but on a different scale than you'd expect from what is essentially a science fiction film. Don't expect laser gun battles or guys in trench coats flying through the air in slow motion, the effects here are a part of the film as a whole, a constant, not a series of flashy set pieces. The 'organic' creations used to play the game and different devices related to them are where most of the effects tie in - something as minimal as an insertion into the port on the spine is done with such an oddly grotesque sense of calm that it somehow almost seems normal even when we know it isn't and probably never should be.
The film moves at a good pace, it builds well, it's nicely edited and very well shot. Cronenberg manages to keep our interest level high throughout by subjecting us to increasingly bizarre notions of what is real and what is not. The cast are game, with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law doing the bulk of the work and well at that while supporting efforts from Ian Holm and a criminally underappreciated Don McKeller are welcome additions. Cronenberg has made better movies before and since but this is a top tier and underrated entry in his impressive filmography.
eXistenZ arrives on a 25GB Blu-ray disc in an AVC encoded 1080i (the packaging states 1080p but this is definitely not the case with the disc sent for review) high definition transfer framed at 1.78.1 widescreen. The opening Dimension Films logo shows quite a bit of dirt but the movie itself doesn't look bad in terms of print damage. It seems unlikely that a new master was created so who knows how old the source used here is but it offers an improvement over the DVD even if it isn't up to what most Blu-ray fans will consider to be 'good.' Detail is soft in most scenes and there is what looks to be some edge enhancement here and there. Compression issues are occasionally distracting as is some macroblocking. Colors look good (though it should be noted that the movie makes use of a distinctly neutral looking color scheme for much of its running time) if a little bright, black levels could have been deeper but are at least. Texture is okay, not great but okay, while skin tones look reasonably natural. There's definitely been considerable room left for improvement here.
Echo Bridge have supplied English language options in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio, there are no alternate language options or subtitles provided. You're not going to notice loads of difference between the two mixes as most of the activity in the 5.1 track takes place upfront in the mix but the rears are used here and there to spread things out and to play with the score a bit. Quality of the mix is fine - there's decent channel separation throughout the movie and while bass response isn't as powerful as it could have been in some scenes your subwoofer will kick in when called for. There are no problems with hiss or distortion and levels are properly balanced throughout the movie. Things certainly could have been more enveloping and active than they are but this isn't bad.
The extras on this release include three interviews. The first is with leading man Jude Law (14:39) who discusses his work on the picture, his character and his thoughts on the film. The second interview is with actor Willem Dafoe (6:57) and he more or less follows suit, giving us a glimpse into his experiences working with Cronenberg on the film and his take on his character in the movie. The third and final interview is with the special effects supervisor Jim Isaac (27:41) who speaks in what looks like a sort of classroom setting about his work on the picture. Aided by some of the props he created for the film, he talks about trying to get Cronenberg's vision for the film right and discusses what went into some of the prosthetics work we see in the movie.
Collectors and completists take note: the Canadian DVD release of the movie had a lot more extras than this including a lengthy documentary and three commentary tracks that have not been carried over. It would have been nice to see the trailer included here as well, but that didn't happen. Menus and chapter stops are also included.
David Cronenberg's eXistenZ holds up really well and is absolutely worth seeing. This Blu-ray release from Echo Bridge offers a modest upgrade in video quality over the DVD release and a decent upgrade in the audio department. If it doesn't include the commentary tracks and documentary from the Canadian release it does offer up three decent interviews and you can't argue with the price point. This one should have looked better - it really should have - but it comes recommended on the strength of the movie.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.