21.11.2019 in Review

Analysis of the Film ‘eXistenZ’ by David Cronenberg

The science fiction movie “eXistenZ” was filmed during the era of technological and informational takeover. In 1999, the world society experienced a surge in fear and anxiety about the future. Moreover, concerning the upcoming millennium, it marked the climax of such moods in society. This period is notable for science fiction films like “The Matrix,” “Fight Club,” or “Equilibrium,” all addressing the theme of virtual or alternative reality. The idea of escapism and distraction arises from people’s fear of the unknown and the anticipation of worst-case scenarios in the development of each new technological, informational, or other kinds of innovations.

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“eXistenZ” expresses the idea of virtual reality in a somewhat awkward manner. It applies to the concept of the human body and its relation to consciousness, with technology and alternative reality disrupting these relations. Speaking about cinematographic apparatus, which provides hints to what virtual reality is, it demonstrates ruins of the former world, where no new things are built, because everything new is imaginary.

It is notable that there is a difference between the characters – their genders and nationalities – but there is no emphasis on it. The main thing that differentiates people in “eXistenZ” is their categorization on those who prefer reality and those who prefer games. Their identities and personalities are so different only to reflect the model of the whole world. Cronenberg’s film does not clearly reveal the difference between the real and virtual worlds, and although it was visible at the beginning, it becomes confusing in the end. This technique is widely used in science fiction literature and filmmaking. It dates back to the dystopian literature of the 1920th and grew into the stable motif of mind games, which reflected on the Stanislav Lem’s novel “Solaris” known for being a background of Tarkovsky movie with the same title, shot in 1972. One and the same motif has been scattering throughout the science fiction pieces for last more than 100 years, finding itself in contemporary movies as well.

According to Siegfried Kracauer, this phenomenon was born in the 1920s within the masses who were trying to escape from post-war reality. People went watching movies and could do it all day long. This was a sort of addiction to a different reality that helped them forget about their problems. The same motif is used by Cronenberg in his science fiction body horror thriller “eXistenZ”, but here it embodies in phantasmagorical objects connected to video games. Moreover, it is based on the real threat of game-addicted personalities of our times.

Cronenberg’s film (1995) begins with the meetings of gamers who came to test a new game. All of them own gamepads, which look rather like mutant animals. These are the biotechnological devices of the future, and the cinematographer uses close-ups to demonstrate them. While testing the game, the founder of the game, Allegra, was attacked and shot into her shoulder with an awkward weapon, also emphasized with a close-up shot and slow tilting of the camera. It was made of biomaterial – bones, flash and human teeth. Ted Pikul, starring Jude Law, saves her. Soon, Allegra tells Pikul that he must be her bodyguard, which surprises him.

On their coming to a motel, Allegra confessed that her game pad contains the only original version of the game and that is why she needs someone friendly to play with her in order to test it. Pikul refuses and it appears that he is one of the minorities, who has no bio-port in his spine because of his phobia of such surgery. Allegra persuades him to do a surgery in a strange place – a gas station, with the help of Gas, starring William Defoe. The notable thing here is that they meet a two-headed mutant amphibian on their way, which seems a strange sign. The gas station is also demonstrated in the best traditions of horror thrillers – a low-angled still shot. Gas inserts a spoilt port into Pikul’s body to damage the game pad and tries to kill Allegra for money, but Pikul kills him first. They run away and head to a former ski lodge used by Allegra’s friend Kiri Vinokur. He replaces Pikul’s port and performs surgery on Allegra’s damaged game pad.

As the couple start playing in the lodge, Pikul becomes concerned about his own behavior inside the game, but Allegra explains him that it was the scenario to make him subordinate his game character’s words, but not his own. Soon, they acquire new micro pods to adopt new identities as game pad factory workers. They get deeper into the game, where reality has different levels to overcome and gets stuck if players do not follow scenario. On the factory, it becomes more or less understandable, which strengths conflict in the film – these are game companies Antenna Research, which Allegra works for, and Cortical Systematics, which was Antenna’s enemy on the market. The opposing strength to both companies is the Realist movement, whose representatives aim to destroy Allegra and her game.

At the factory, the couple gets to know Yevgeniy Nourish, who claims to be their informatory in the Realist community and suggests them order a special in the Chinese restaurant. The way to the restaurant is notable for its point-of-view shot from the back of the heroes throughout the walk, which creates an effect of participating in the game. When they come there, the key moment of the film embodies in Pikul pause the game to come back to the ski lodge to realize he does not differentiate reality from virtual world. He is not sure that the reality is not a game. All the transitions between the game and reality are supported by smooth but sudden editing of different shots. However, they come back to the game, where Pikul eats a special made of mutant reptiles and amphibians. He makes a gun out of their skeletons and points it at Allegra in a joke, but then kills the waiter. The camera is still here to show the frozen atmosphere of the game. Sooner they find out that the waiter was their informatory, while Nourish was their enemy – a double agent for Cortical Systematics. At the factory Allegra becomes infected, but Pikul frees her, when Nourish appears to shoot the pad and spread the disease with spores.

Once it happens, Allegra and Pikul return to the lodge from the game they had lost. It becomes obvious that Vinokur gave a diseased port to Pikul’s spine before they started the game, so Allegra inserts a treatment into his port. At this time, another character from the game appears as a Realist and shows both the death of eXistenZ and wants to kill Allegra, but he is shot by Vinokur, who appears to be an agent for Cortical Systematics. He says that he copied her game and wanted her to join them. Allegra kills Vinokur, being sure it was a game, but Pikul asks her what if it wasn’t, so she really killed. Anyway, he confesses that he has been sent to kill Allegra, so she kills him, as well, happy to win the game.

At this point the most unexpected, but a suspected thing happens. All the participants of the game sit on the stage in some kind of hall. All their devices are electronic. They have been playing for about 20 minutes a game transCendenZ, designed by Nourish, and now have come back to reality. Allegra and Pikul appear to be assassins of the Realism movement in this reality and they kill Nourish and his assistant for their crimes of deforming reality. People in the room seem the same as those in the scene of murder in the Chinese restaurant – more frozen than shocked. In the final scene, the same Chinese person asks them if they are still in the game and they doubt to answer. This makes viewers feel the biggest tension in the end of the movie and ask themselves the same question.

To continue with, this movie reveals possible threat of technology – in its external and internal means. Externally, the virtual reality is a chance to escape from reality for some time, as it was said by Allegra in the movie, because it lacks intrigue and emotions, it is uninteresting in opposition of the game. However, internally, the game changes people. It allows violence with no punishment; it dictates the character of each person and this virtual reality becomes as real as any other. The game is a simulacrum, which models reality, but this simulacrum becomes reality once it possesses the consciousness of its objects, because all the feelings and emotions are real, anyway.

Despite the game being an object in one reality, it makes people its subjects. The most terrifying point of this process is how the self-protection instinct works. Pikul is the only one character who was afraid of surgeries and disguised different organic but not live items. He was the one not to accept the mutants as something normal. Pikul embodies a natural human fear in the face of technology on the level of animal instincts, perceiving them as something unnatural. Cinematographic apparatus, in this case, plays an essential role in expressing all the unnatural aspects. The virtual reality of the game eXistenZ involves much ugliness, concepts of insanitary and viruses. Hence, Vivian Sobchack’s ideas of people’s comparing and referring their body to the computers reflect in this point a lot. Dirty and unhealthy atmosphere is emphasized in the scene at the gas station, factory and sloughs where mutants are grown symbolize that everything about the whole virtual reality is wrong and ill. Even those game pads look more like tumors or increased disease cells than some sort of normal devices. Moreover, the way people get into the game does not seem like a technology of future, but a sickness of future. The dark lights and closed spaces hint at the aloofness of gamers who prefer an unnatural way of life. The key point here is that the atmosphere and darkness do not change in different realities, which proves the idea, that the last space is not real, as well. Each scene involves ruins, dim lights, tattered walls etc. However, camera movements are different in the scenes of expressing the eXistenZ atmosphere in comparison to other realities. It uses close cuts and fast movement, involving viewers into the game as a spectator and a participant, who follows the characters. It stops and shows still pictures tilting up from the lowered angle to prove the reference to the game. The same technique is used in the final scene; in addition, it is dolling until it reaches close cut of Allegra’s and Pikul’s faces to suddenly cut the scene at the moment when viewers are confused whether it is still a game.

The difference between the real and illusory worlds is not obvious, as it seems that everything is illusory. Comparing the “eXistenZ” to Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (1972), where different realities are demonstrated with transition of the main character Chris Kelvin through the misty clouds. Cinematographically, all the illusive scenes of Solaris are more colorful and have more lights. Unexpectedly, as well as in the “eXistenZ”, it turns that everything is illusive in the ocean Solaris, which is a complex of the peoples’ consciousnesses. Although the final scenes of both films reveal the same idea, they are shot in opposite ways. If the eXistenZ’s final scene focuses on the close up picture of the faces, Solaris demonstrates zooming back from the object – the house, expanding the picture and moving to the Birdseye shots to reveal the island of hero’s desires and memories in the ocean of Solaris.

All the mentioned ruins mean that the consciousness of those who build the realities consists of fragments of their old lives and memories, those are the ruins of the primary reality, but despite that, nobody builds anything new, because it does not make sense to do so – it will not be real. In addition, there are hints of the old world, which include different races and gender of the participants. As it was mentioned before, such a division creates a model of the world, where everyone is equal from the first sight. However, Allegra mentions that some characters are not well-written and have odd accents. Moreover, all the enemies seem to come from different countries with their different aims, which can be a delayed prediction of the possibility of the World War III, whose motif is popular among video games.

Speaking about the gender of the participants, the majority is represented by men, as in real life, mostly men or boys get addicted to games. Women are rare in this world; however, Allegra is the one to win the game. The difference in gender is supported by the hidden sexual tension between the two players, which reveals soon at the beginning of the game. Their sexuality is partially perverse, because it is based on the game items – pads and ports, which is unnatural for the viewers, but comprehensive in terms of the virtual context.

To conclude, Cronenberg’s film “eXistenZ” is a science fiction thriller based on the concepts of virtual reality of the world of video games and their threat to the human culture, ethics and aesthetics. It reflects natural human fears for their consciousness and body in the face of the technology takeover. The film reveals other motifs, such as projecting the problem onto the whole world, perversions in sexual relations, faster flow of time, neglecting morality and destroying reality. In general, the movie seems awkward at first glance, but it becomes more profound after an analysis of its ideas and motifs.

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