We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Science fiction used to concern itself with threats from outer space. United as Earthlings, we feared the unknown in the form of strangers, literal aliens from or on other planets, in other galaxies, with other moons—the farther away, the more menacing. But skepticism about the limits of space exploration has turned the glamorous possibilities of little green men into the reality of dreary old Martian rocks, and the consistent nature of alien lifestyles according to modern-day UFOrics is a subject perhaps better suited to the hard strictures of psychoanalysis than the pliable boundaries of art. Whatever is out there cannot be half so threatening as the chance that what is in here—on Earth, in the human body and its soul—is not what it seems.

Inner space has been a persistent strain among sci-fi imagineers all along, but it burst into such malignant flower until cybernetics gave the psyche another place to go. As the handmaiden of robotics, artificial intelligence facilitated the possibility that They might live among us, or that some of us are really Them, or that we’re none of us what we believe ourselves to be. But although denying the soul is easy—most people don’t quite believe in theirs, anyway—denying the implacable evidence of the body is hard. Computer-chip-based AI has made that denial possible, and the utopians and weird ex-hippies who used to talk about “computing human consciousness” in the ’70s sound frighteningly prescient to modern ears, although their rap was never more than a cyberchilled update of that old sci-fi scenario, the tyrannical bodiless brain. Thus the prototypical Tron begat the strikingly modern Blade Runner, which gave way to Dark City, The Matrix, and 13th Floor; and David Cronenberg, long a dedicated infantryman in the battle against the body’s decay and rebellion, finds himself suddenly a man of his times.

When his surrounding culture allowed him less to play with, Cronenberg’s fierce focus produced cheap but effective works of gemlike clarity that examined from all sides various ambivalences about the physical self: childbirth, female sexuality, the parasitic nature of the viscera, sex organs as mutations and vice versa, thoughts made flesh, insects, insects, insects. After a few years of floundering amid questions of identity (M. Butterfly), reality (Naked Lunch), and the carnal machine (Crash), Cronenberg’s art has become revitalized by the possibilities of cyberexistence, which he plumbs with great enthusiasm and far too many corollary ideas in Existenz. Retooling the implausible horrors of Videodrome’s hallucination-inducing television signal for the scarily likely realm of virtual game-playing, Existenz is a whirring blenderful of Cronenberg’s pet obsessions—entropy and generation, rebellion and resilience, thwarted sexuality. The result is a blood-colored, pulpy mass, an interesting but depthless object of contemplation for those with a very high threshold of squeamishness.

The movie opens on a church interior, full of antique burnish and cyberdetail, where a marketing focus group is gathered to test Antenna Research’s latest computer game. Superstar game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) herself is on hand for the test run of eXistenZ, the most advanced and complex virtual-reality experience as yet produced in this near future. Allegra is the embodiment of the futuristic celebrity, cynosure of society’s desires and discontents; while most people see her as a goddess, others resent her as the symbol of false reality—”Death to the demonness!” cries the gunman who has sneaked into the church where the unholy ritual is to take place, indicating that in its displeasure, Allegra’s meaning to this society is larger than her self.

As the church erupts in panic, Allegra grabs her damaged game pod and is whisked to safety by security guard Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a moonlighting marketing trainee with an interest in the business of computer games. The pleasure of these games, on the other hand, demands a hefty investment—the visceralike game pods sprout knobby, veined umbilical cords that jack in directly to the player’s “bioport,” a puffy hole at the base of the spine made with an enormous piercing-gun-like weapon. Multiple players can participate in the same game, their nervous systems fueling the technology; their memories, desires, and fears directing the play within the game designer’s basic framework. In a clothed, isolated erotic swoon that recalls Woody Allen’s high-inducing orb in Sleeper, the participants manipulate the fleshy blobs on their laps while their consciousnesses romp through the muck and glitz of the game world.

On the run from censors—Cronenberg uses the word “fatwa” with excruciating self-consciousness—Allegra and her protector head to a gas station, where she hopes to get Ted an illicit bioport. Childbirth, anal sex, and solo entertainment are vertiginously swirled as the worldly lady and the bashful boy discuss his cybervirginity. Ted fears the huge metal penetrator wielded by Gas (Willem Dafoe), a treacherous underground bioport inserter, but once the extra hole has been opened in his body, it sucks the cord in eagerly—”It’s aching for action,” coos Allegra, fingering the aperture. Repeatedly, the hapless novice Ted is fitted with a defective or infected port, and his experimentation—”You’ve never played a game?” as Allegra says—produces as much disease as pleasure, a limited lifespan along with an expanded menu of realities.

Cronenberg’s gynecological terrors have been gradually sublimating into a mixture of mechanics and alternative orifices and devices, coalescing into this post-heterosexual vision of pleasure as dangerous, passive, painful, and introduced through unorthodox means. Whether Existenz proposes to make any statement on homosexuality per se is unclear. The script lights riveting sparklers one by one and observes them as they die out—the game is burdened with metaphor, but devoid of meaning.

Since the game had already begun when the terrorist shot up Allegra’s game pod, she must get the organ fixed before the virtual world traps and destroys the focus-group players. Ted and Allegra seek out various weirdos in various freaky environments—the psychotic Gas, a guy in an off-season ski lodge, a game-pod surgeon named Vinokur (Ian Holm)—and that’s only “outside” the game. Once Ted jacks in and the pair enters eXistenZ, the story proceeds to another level, where the film’s actors appear in participatory game roles, as heavily accented and ostentatiously quirky characters, dramatic projections of their real-world selves. The narrative’s progress is directed by the game-time characters, who are programmed to react to players—they shut down like animatronic creatures unless cued—guiding Ted to a job in a mysterious trout farm where mutant amphibians are raised, reeling the couple into a Chinese restaurant of surpassing grotesqueness, where the special is a dish containing the components of a classic Cronenbergian trope: a “gristle gun” of flesh and sinew that shoots human teeth.

Existenz masquerades as a thriller and keeps the precise nature of the participants’ allegiance in and out of the game obscure, but we’re not given enough information to gauge any character’s veracity, so the plot’s many twists and reversions convey the same numb surprise to the audience as they do to naive Ted. The film can’t take us anywhere we’d understand, so absent the thrill of quest, what’s left is a thrill ride, and Existenz is that. Shot in the glittering metallic cobalt of Crash and the nauseated brown and jade of early Cronenberg creepies, the film polishes “reality” to an unlikely gloss and imbues its virtual world with credible tactile filth: the trout farm with its brackish ponds of slimy, tentacled creatures; the mundane game store with its blisterpaks of miniaturized pods, new even to Allegra; the pod hospital where the blobby lumps of metaflesh quiver under the knife—all of it vivid and hyperreal, crawling with obsessive, stomach-turning, lovingly painted detail.

Not existential, not realist by its own definition, Existenz is concerned with the terms of existence in its various physical and fantastic forms only insofar as they, too, may reflect Cronenberg’s fascination with infection and mutation and physical vulnerability—what Videodrome bluntly called the “new flesh.” But James Woods’ vaginal belly slit/video slot has become the universal anal outlet, and Existenz is less purely grotesque than its forebear—and much more anxious. Ted is menaced everywhere by uncleanliness—at the gas station, the trout farm, the Chinese restaurant—reflecting his squeamishness at literally opening himself up via a bioport and accepting also its metaphorical use as a conduit for emotional vulnerability; the umbilical cord connects him with pleasure and acknowledges his need for it as weakness. Transformed into a character by the game, Ted finds himself reveling in ordure, absorbing it greedily—”I find this disgusting,” he says, licking slime from a mutated frog drumstick, “but I can’t help myself.”

Disgust is the risk element that turns Cronenberg on; the pursuit-and-flight narrative holds no risk and acts merely as engine. As in all of his films, ideas are more important than their precise execution, but on a smaller canvas he has been able to portray those ideas in all their prismatic guises, propel the narrative, and make a point. Existenz is big, floppy, thinky, and consummately, wonderfully icky, but it’s not a prism—more like a kitchen drawer where all the stray sex/squalor/truth/science/flesh Post-its go. He builds his baklava of existence and meta-existence so quickly that it hardly matters who will turn out to be the Realist Underground double agents; the fun is in watching the actors create their own multilevel miniworlds of new accents and hairstyles, in-game and out-game personalities, while the mutant riverbugs and biologically altered human players squirm senselessly in unreality’s grip.CP