on April 23, 1999 by Annlee Ellingson
   In his first original screenplay since 1983's "Videodrome," writer/director David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ" revisits the same theme his 1996 film "Crash" did, namely sex. More specifically, weird sex. Just as "Crash's" characters got off on automobile accidents, "eXistenZ's" characters are turned on by a video game.
   Jennifer Jason Leigh ("A Thousand Acres") stars as Allegra Gellar, a world-famous video game designer and pop culture star about to premier her new creation, "eXistenZ." As she and a dozen other players begin to download the game, however, she's attacked and shot by a covert member of the Realists, a radical anti-game group that opposes the way games skew players' sense of reality. In the subsequent chaos, Allegra's safety is entrusted to makeshift security guard Ted Pikul ("Gattaca's" Jude Law), and the two hit the road looking for sanctuary.
   Along the way, Allegra insists that Pikul play "eXistenZ" with her. Her game pod may have been damaged in the attack, and the only way to be sure that it's intact is to play with someone friendly. Pikul, however, has never had a bioport installed at the base of his spine, making him a sort of video game virgin. Once he's outfitted--by a man named Gas ("Speed 2's" Willem Dafoe) at a backcountry gas station, no less--Pikul's first gaming experience comes from the greatest game designer of all time.
   Cronenberg's vision of the future of gaming is organic. The hardware evolves from synthetically enhanced amphibian eggs, plugs directly into the human body via umbilical-like chords and draws its power from the body's nervous system, metabolism and energy. The game itself feeds off the individual players' fears, desires and ambitions, and it ain't a pretty sight. The environment inside the game is grotesque, with a dirty setting, monstrous characters, absurd plot lines and gory violence.
   Because it's rooted in biology, the game has an incredibly realistic psychological effect. Players, especially new ones, have a hard time distinguishing between what's real and what's virtual, and eventually even real life begins to feel unreal. In fact, it becomes increasingly unclear as the film proceeds what's the game and what isn't, and action occurring presumably in the game may have dire consequences in real life.
   Another symptom of the game's biological basis is its direct association with sex, perhaps our most primal instinct. The script fairly oozes sexuality, from the nipple-like protrusions on the "eXistenZ" game pods to the characteristics of a bioport: Pikul likens getting one installed to penetration while Allegra advises him, "New ports are sometimes a bit tight" and that they tend to get excited, looking for action.
   Cronenberg's commentary here, though grotesque, belies a certain intelligence. His observations reflect the concern that role-playing games are replacing social interaction. As the personal computer increasingly brings the world to your doorstep, it likewise discourages you from going out into the world, perhaps skewing your sense of reality. And the reality you create instead may not be the safest one. Unfortunately, "eXistenZ's" complex themes and even more complex plot too easily get lost beneath the mucous, dirt, blood and gore. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe. Written and directed by David Cronenberg. Produced by Robert Lantos, Andras Hamori and David Cronenberg. A Miramax release. Sci-fi thriller. Rated R for strong sci-fi violence and gore, and for language. Running time: 97 min
Tags: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, David Cronenberg, Robert Lantos, Andras Hamori, A Miramax release, Sci-fi thriller, personal, sex, primal instrint, psychological, damaged, gaming, gory violence

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