The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - EXISTENZ (1999) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - EXISTENZ (1999)

existenz review
Following an assassination attempt, the developer of a virtual reality game goes on the run with a security guard.

Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: David Cronenberg

Starring: Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ian Holm, Don Mckellar, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley, Christopher Eccleston, William Dafoe

existenz blu-ray

Coming on like a gamer cousin of Videodrome, David Cronenberg’s vision of an RPG dystopia makes its debut on blu-ray in the UK. Having the misfortune to come out in the shadow of box office behemoth The Matrix led to something of a critical shrug on release, not flash bang enough for the popcorn crowd and lacking the strong meat that made the director's earlier work so viscerally compelling.

Looking now like his last hurrah in the science fiction genre, time has been rather more kind to eXistenZ than the dated existential wire-fu gubbins of the Wachowskis' trilogy. An advertising campaign that seemed to mention The Matrix at every turn hardly did it any favours either. Melding technology with fleshy bio-ports and tech that looks like it has come from a Love Honey catalogue allows an immersion into speculative science fiction that now makes more cutting-edge effects look relatively cheapjack 18 years later.


In what must rank as the most low-tech focus group for a game launch (half church, half Harvester restaurant) Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) launches new immersive video game 'eXistenZ' to a gaggle of frothing acolytes. An attempted assassination by a realist movement means Geller and security guard Ted Pikul (Jude Law) go on the run.

The plan is then to stay alive and protect her hi tech fleshy gaming device, a barely animate piece of pink plastic that is still marginally more charismatic than Pikul. No virtual reality goggles for Cronenberg then; in order to jack into the experience requires an invasive body orifice for the phallic USB to penetrate, allowing both fear of losing ones’ identity and tearing into ideas of machismo and homophobia at the idea of being penetrated by a fleshy nodule.

Whereas most games play into a teenage idea of hyper sexualised violence, a la 'Grand Theft Auto' or the Avatars I’d Like to Fuck (AILF) of the earlier 'Tomb Raider' games, it’s the tech that Cronenberg finds sexy. This is probably the filthiest movie to earn an R rating while featuring no actual full-on sex. Like Crash, it delights in the perverse, always finding new orifices to penetrate and challenging the idea of what normality means anyway.


The structure may be somewhat banal (diving into a game that asks 'what is fiction and what is real?') but the execution is anything but, a hardware factory that uses mutant amphibians to create its tech and a gun made up of fish bones and teeth being some of the films more outré ideas. The blending of reality and the game is also rather well done. No zooming into a hyper real mega verse here. The game and reality are equally non-descript, taking place in the countryside rather than some futuristic hellscape, using the language of cinema to cut between the truth and fiction.

Any fan of genre cinema knows exactly where this story is going, and that poses something of a problem. As a first viewing experience it can be a difficult watch. Apart from Leigh and Willem Dafoe, the characterisation is unusually bland, festooned with cameos rather than actual living breathing people. The game universe is unclear and somewhat linear. The reasoning behind this becomes clear after the event, but it can be alienating for those new to the word of the flesh. Distancing and opaque but a unique worldview is something to be celebrated in this world of identikit blockbusters.


Gaming as a religious experience hasn’t quiet come to pass but the sexualisation of inanimate objects has, whether the use for sexual gratification or the fetishisation of Apple that has people queuing up all night for the latest iPhone. The need to feel connected on social media and the opioid buzz caused by tweets going viral is not that far removed from having Jude Law lick your back cavity.

Cronenberg seems lost to the world of respectable literary adaptations and exploring the corruption of the mind rather than the body these days. With the advances in effects and a slightly less puritanical approach to horror today, let us hope there is still one last adrenal assault of body horror left in him. Long live the new flesh.

101 Films get off to a great start with their new numbered boutique 'Black' label. There is a director’s commentary and hour-long documentary with art director Carol Spier from previous versions that are definitely worth a view. A new interview with Christopher Eccleston shows his enthusiasm, even though he has a love for The Dead Zone. which is the director's most anonymous film, leading the actor to posit that the assassination of Donald Trump would be a good idea.

There also two more commentary tracks, the best of which is with Kim Newman and Den of Geek's Ryan Lambie, which is full of fun digressions as well as a separate talk track with Mondo Digital's Nathaniel Thomson. Add to the mix a load of interviews with cast and crew at the time of release and a booklet of essays from Alex Morris and Phillip Escott and you have a debut release that augurs well for the future.

101 Films release eXistenZ on dual format blu-ray/DVD May 21st.