I've watched eXistenZ many times, the first time in the theater. I had seen The Matrix
a week before,
and eXistenZ had a much larger impact on me. When we left the theater I had this strange buzzing feeling, the movie really affected me. This is my attempt to collect some of the thoughts I have and a couple of things I've heard about the film.
eXistenZ's motif is mid-90's video game. I've read an interview where Cronenberg mentioned games having
a major influence on the movie, and it's readily apparent. It feels like eXistenZ could be from one of the books in Myst. The sets all kind of have an empty, unreal feeling to them. Bare, dark colored walls. Textures stretching out and repeating. A few times in the movie there's shots of characters interacting with the textures of the world. There's concrete and upholstery and wooden floors. Allegra runs her hand along a wall at one point, amazed with it, and Ted squeezes an upholstered chair at the game repair cabin. It's just like the strange almost-reality of Myst and The 7th Guest and Quake. Repeated textures all over. I've also read somewhere that there is a minimal amount of reflective surfaces, and almost no brand names in the movie. Upon viewing it again this sticks out. Everything's generic, most of the characters are even generic; stereotypes. Like the nerdy scientists and cookie-cutter soldiers in Half-Life, in eXistenZ we have wacky Russian technicians and Callum Keith Rennie (yummy), the tough soldier. The locations in the film are generic too. There's 'Motel', 'Country Gas Station', 'Trout Farm' and 'Chinese Restaurant'. I'm reminded of some of the (probably badly translated) generic names from the Final Fantasy games: 'Comet' for example.
Regarding the setting, I caught a behind-the-scenes show on Bravo about eXistenZ and it showed how most of the movie was actually filmed in an abandoned air-force base in Toronto. If you watch carefully you can notice that the ski cabin that Allegra and Ted stay in is actually the same set as the game repair cabin.
eXistenZ is a David Cronenberg movie, so there's bound to be some strange sex stuff going on. The game pod and the 'umby cords' and amazingly creative inventions, I loved them right away, but some people get turned off or revolted by them. My friend's dad watched the movie and said he thought it was 'sick'.
Plugging umby cords into holes in people's backs has obvious overtones towards anal sex. There's a progression through the movie in the sexuality associated with the umby cords. At first, the people in the church are plugged in off camera. Then later when Allegra first plugs we only see from the front. Eventually Allegra and Ted progress to licking the knob on the cord, to lubing up, to tonguing each other's holes, to stuffing things inside, to an explosive butt plug. The ratings board must have had a hard time with this movie. The film had blatant anal sex, in a way, but not really. I'm sure that a film featuring real anal sex would get an NC-17, I can even think of a recent case where this occurred (but mentioning which film it is would spoil the movie).
Existentialism and Gnoscism
I'm not an expert on existentialism or the Gnostic heresey, but they play a major part in eXistenZ. The line which sums up the existentialism in the film the best is when Ted remarks that he doesn't enjoy the game they're playing because he doesn't know the rules, he doesn't understand what's going on. This seems like something he could say about real life and be just as honest. He doesn't know the rules of eXistenZ, so he feels less remorse at the killing of Chinese Waiter than he does when he kills Gas. "I think I killed him." But he's actually in the game all along... our reality could be a great game too, why not? Why not just run out and kill people in real life? Conversely, maybe people should just play nice in the games and nice in life. Who's to say which is more real, when they blend and feel so similar?
The Gnostic influence on the movie has to do with the game-within a game-within a game-within... structure. There was actually a big group of movies that came out around the same time which dealt with this; The Thirteenth Floor and The Matrix were the other two. As far as I understand it, Gnoscism is a heresey which theorizes that our world was actually created by a chaotic sub-God, not the real God. In the film the characters take part in strange worlds which are never actually real, there's always some orchestration behind it, there's always the feeling that the Wizard of Oz is lurking behind the scenes.
Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick, the great science fiction writer, had an enormous influence on this film, as he has on many other sci-fi movies. The movie plays like an extended and transplanted version of his short story 'The Days of Perky Pat'. That story is about colonists on Mars who take drugs to interact in the lives of their Barbie-like dolls, the female Perky Pat and her husband and friends. They rip apart the radios and other supplies they are sent to build more devices for their dolls. The bleakness and boredom of being space colonists drives them to this fantasy. Cronenberg makes direct reference to the story when Ted gets food from 'Perky Pat's', written on the bag. The camera lingers on this for a bit in the motel scene near the start.
'The Days of Perky Pat' led to Dick's novel 'The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch' which featured a drugs named 'Chew-Z' and 'Can-D' which could transport users to different hallucinatory worlds. Chew-Z bears a lot of resemblance to eXistenZ, both in the capitalized letters of their names and the role they perform.
Recently I rented Cronenberg's Videodrome and was amazed by its similarity to eXistenZ. It's like eXistenZ is Videodrome updated to the 90's. Videodrome is about TV while eXistenZ is about video games. There was one scene in Videodrome that really struck me, as the dialogue was almost exactly the same as in eXistenZ. Unfortunately I can't remember which scene right now, I'll have to go watch it again to catch it.
Seeing it again
Every time I watch eXistenZ I pick up on something new. The second time I saw it I noticed the hints that were dropped throughout the film as towards the twist at the end. The generic names of the motel and gas station and the stereotypes are major tip-offs that something's amiss. The biggest clues come in private moments Allegra and Ted have. At the gas station, Allegra twirls around outside and listens to the ping as she throws gravel at metal. She's amazed by the authenticity, the vermisilitude, of the world she's exploring. Later on, at the Russian's hut, when Ted squeezes the chair, he's also exploring the reality of the world he's in. Checking if every little thing in the world has been simulated.
The bad acting makes sense once the movie is over, and it presents an amusing topic of discussion: Is it okay for a movie to have cheesy, bad acting if it's all being done on purpose? When the wand is waved at the end does it make all the bad acting okay? Did the actors actually have to work hard to act badly?
There's a few other small things I've noticed about eXistenZ. The names 'allegra' and 'gellar' are almost anagrams, just that 'allegra' has an extra 'a'. Also, the only brand name in the film other than 'Perky Pat's' is on the can at the gas station: 'XE-60'. The can looks like WD-40 and its name is also close, 'X' and 'E' are next in the alphabet after 'W' and D', and 60 is the next multiple of 20 after 40.