[Screen It]


(1999) (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: After an attempt is made on her life, a futuristic game designer and her security guard enter the world created by one of her virtual reality games and must then try to figure out what's reality and what's not.
Allegra Geller (JENNIFER JASON LEIGH) is the most famous game designer in the world and a group of test subjects has been assembled to give her latest game, eXistenZ, the once-over. A virtual reality experience, the game is controlled by a strange, organic pod that connects to multiple players via their bio-ports, permanent holes that connect directly into their spines.

Just as the game gets under way, an assassin comes from the audience and tries to kill her with some sort of odd weapon. Although wounded, she manages to escape and flees with Ted Pikul (JUDE LAW), a rookie security guard and marketing trainee at Antenna, their employer.

Unsure of who wants her dead, Allegra won't let Ted contact anyone, and instead is more concerned about her partially damaged game pod and her only version of eXistenZ that resides inside it. Needing someone to play the game with her to insure that the pod and her game survived intact, Allegra convinces Ted to be the one.

With the help of Gas (WILLEM DAFOE) an odd gas station attendant who outfits Ted with a bio-port and the later assistance of fellow Antennae employee Kiri Vinokur (IAN HOLM), Allegra and Ted enter the virtual reality world of eXistenZ.

Once inside, they encounter all sorts of strange characters, creatures and circumstances with Allegra telling Ted that he won't know the goal of the game until he's played it through to its conclusion. From that point on, and as the two alternate spending time there and back in reality, they soon realize that the line between the two continually gets blurrier until they can no longer recognize what world they're in.

Those who are fans of Jennifer Jason Leigh or director David Cronenberg might, but it's doubtful most kids will be very interested in this one.
For strong sci-fi violence and gore, and for language.
  • JENNIFER JASON LEIGH plays a world famous virtual reality game designer whose latest game has assassins trying to kill her. Along the way, she cusses some, makes out with Ted, and kills some bad guys.
  • JUDE LAW plays her security guard who reluctantly finds himself in Allegra's strange universe, but does make out with her in one scene.
  • IAN HOLM and WILLEM DAFOE briefly play characters who aren't what they initially seem and end up behaving malevolently.


    OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
    You've got to hand it to filmmakers when they construct a movie in such a fashion that easily allows for them to ward off any criticism of slow or confusing plots, unconvincing character development and motivation, peculiar casting and often poorly written dialogue. It gets even better when characters within the film even comment on such problems, saying that "the characters aren't very well drawn and dialogue is only so-so."

    Of course that doesn't mean you have to buy into such excuses -- and the inevitable inside joke comments -- or forgive the filmmakers for their misdeeds, no matter how everything makes sense by the end or how brilliant some of their previous efforts have been.

    As such, the film "eXistenZ" fits that description. The latest effort from David Cronenberg ("Crash," "Dead Ringers"), the master of odd movies, this picture is something of an appropriate continuation of his earlier work, 1983's "Videodrome." Like that film, this one mixes the realities of our world and that of the media with some gross out effects used to further empathize what's presumably a cautionary tale about getting too involved in escapism-based entertainment.

    That said, this slow moving affair is also similar to "Total Recall," "The Matrix" and even "The Game," all movies where reality is similarly never quite what it seems. Unlike those films, however -- and in particular "The Matrix" that beat this one out of the gate by several weeks -- this film is incredibly lax in involving the moviegoer, often confusing and worse yet, glacially paced, especially considering how most moviegoers will initially react all of it.

    While in hindsight the film cumulatively manages to make sense once you know the real and final truth -- which actually improves one's reaction and view of the overall proceedings -- that doesn't make one's first (and probably only) experience with it any better. Although the film immediately grabs one's attention simply due to the peculiarities of what initially transpires, it fails to hold the viewer's interest throughout and most viewers will probably give up on the film due to boredom, frustration, or both.

    For example, characters say and do things that don't make any sense -- although they do in hindsight -- and the viewer is apt to attribute this to sloppy and/or poor filmmaking instead of seeing such instances as being a piece of a bigger, clearer picture (much like a closeup view of any impressionistic painting not making sense until one steps back and sees everything from a new perspective).

    While that filmmaking approach can be applauded on an artistic level -- and provides for some subdued but clever jokes during the film, but again, only with hindsight -- it does nothing but alienate the audience as the story unfolds.

    Of course Cronenberg, who's no stranger to keeping films interesting throughout -- just look at "The Fly" or "The Dead Zone" -- could have pumped up the volume, so to speak, to get us through the rather untidy parts of the story. With characters entering a virtual world where anything goes, that would seem like an easy thing to do.

    Yet, unlike "The Matrix" that visually assaulted the senses and kept things continuously zipping along or "Total Recall" that had such a cool, sci-fi premise, Cronenberg keeps things moving at a snail's pace and goes on and on about the game pod, participants' "bio-ports" and how the umbilical cords are inserted into them (all of which becomes way too sexually symbolic for no apparent reason other than as pure exploitative titillation). "The Matrix" used a similar idea (something plugged into the back of one's head) but showed us how it worked in one swift move without hesitation or the need for continued, erotic insertions.

    Like many of his other films, Cronenberg also attempts to use gross-out material to "entertain" us. Although the "gooey, grimy gopher gut" effects live up to their descriptive name, that's all they do and certainly don't assist in moving the story forward or keeping the audience interested.

    It also doesn't help that the film suffers from a terrible case of miscasting (we'll stop saying "although in hindsight" -- you should just take that as a given from now on). While Jennifer Jason Leigh ("Washington Square," "Georgia") is a talented actress, she seems out of her league in such a role. In essence, she plays a character -- who did nothing but continually remind me of actress Elisabeth Shue -- that never gets the audience to sympathize with her or understand her odd attachment to her throbbing, organic game pod.

    On the other hand, Jude Law ("Gattaca" "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil") has the look of a character who's been lifted straight out of some decades old film -- an unintended effect that I personally find creepy but which works well for this sort of picture. Unfortunately, as written, his character is so flat and lacking charisma that he sucks what little energy is present right out of the film.

    The sight of Ian Holm (who was absolutely terrific in "The Sweet Hereafter") will also have viewers pondering why he signed up -- or was cast -- for this role, although Willem Dafoe ("Platoon") is good in a juicy part that's unfortunately rather brief. The rest of the performances and characters are essentially throw away roles.

    Overall, one of the film's biggest problem is that once the characters finally enter the virtual reality world (a point that inexplicably takes more than forty minutes to finally arrive), the film fails to impress the audience and thus loses what little momentum was present.

    Sure, there are some odd creatures, strange occurrences and moments of questioning whether the characters have "stepped out" of the game or are still inside it only thinking they stepped out. Yet, even those fail to live up to similar, but brilliantly creepy moments in films such as "Total Recall."

    Although the subject matter isn't fresh (this certainly isn't the first film to tackle the topic of people getting too involved in games -- think of "Tron" or "Strange Days") -- I had hopes that Cronenberg might redeem himself with it by returning to the weird, "out there" thrillers for which he became famous, especially after being involved in the horribly misfired "Crash." Alas, that's not the case, although with hindsight (sorry) this one's better than it initially seems.

    As such, the film is somewhat like a brilliant piece of art that doesn't look right upon close examination, but manages to come into focus with some distance and a different perspective where one realizes that the sum of the parts is definitely superior to any of them individually.

    Unfortunately, and unlike such a painting, one can't step back and see this film in one instantaneous, all encompassing glance. Instead, the viewer must sit through nearly two hours of what initially appears to be tedious and sloppy filmmaking, and you know what they say about first impressions. Ours wasn't great -- no matter the insightful hindsight -- and thus we give "eXistenZ" just a 3.5 out of 10.

    The following is a brief summary of the content found in this R-rated suspense/thriller. Violence is extreme with several people being killed in various fashions, some of which are quite bloody. Extreme amounts of other blood and gore are present and the film probably isn't the best choice for the squeamish.

    Profanity is heavy due to at least 5 "f" words, with only a smattering of other profanities and phrases also being present. A certain eroticism has been applied to the bio-port holes located in certain characters backs, what with those holes or fingers being moistened before the latter (or other objects) are inserted into the former. In another scene, the two leads do some serious making out with each other including caressing and heavy breathing, but no nudity or actual sex.

    Beyond all of that and some scenes that may be suspenseful to some viewers, the rest of the film is mostly void of any major objectionable content. Nonetheless, should you or someone in your home wish to see this film, you may want to take a closer look at the content should you still be concerned about its appropriateness.

  • None.
  • The pods and their attached umbilical cords may be somewhat gross looking to some viewers.
  • As Allegra and her associate are shot, we see blood squirt out, as is the case with her assailant as he's shot many times. We then see the bloody and deep hole in Allegra's shoulder as well as Ted sticking a knife in the hole to pull out what turns out to be a blood-covered tooth. Even later, we still see the hole in her shoulder (although it's no longer bloody).
  • We see the bio-port hole in Ted's lower back (that most closely resembles an anus) and then see the umbilical cord being inserted into that hole.
  • We see a bloody explosion on a man's neck after Ted has "shot" him with a bio-port hole "inserter," which kills him. We then see the man lying on the floor with lots of blood on his neck.
  • Kiri and his partner operate on Allegra's pod that's quite bloody and gooey. As they spray cleansing water into it, blood runs out of it.
  • We see Allegra inserting her finger and then an umbilical cord into the hole in Ted's back.
  • We see a new mini-pod squeeze its way into the bio-port hole in Allegra's back.
  • Playing an assembling line worker in his virtual reality world, Ted cuts open some sort of amphibian type creature and all sorts of blood comes out as he pulls out its innards. We then see many similar bloody creatures.
  • Told to order the special in a Chinese restaurant, Ted and Allegra do just that and are brought a huge plate of mutant amphibian and reptile creatures. Acting out his virtual reality character, Ted then picks up their gooey remains and starts gnawing on them. He then pulls out a dental bridge from his mouth.
  • A man is shot several times in the face, resulting in blood squirting out each time until we see that he's dead and has had a big portion of the side of his face blown off.
  • A man beheads a reptilian/amphibian creature and blood squirts out from the wound.
  • Seeing that Allegra is in distress, Ted cuts the umbilical cord to a pod resulting in a great deal of blood flowing/squirting from it and getting all over his hands.
  • We see Allegra sticking a plug into the bio-port hole in Ted's back.
  • Blood squirts out from a man when he's shot, as is the case when another man is shot with a machine gun and two others are shot with handguns.
  • An explosive device detonates in a man's back and blood and flesh blows out.
  • All of the people who try to kill Allegra obviously have both (although one must remember that not everything that occurs is actually real).
  • Scenes listed under "Blood/Gore" and "Violence" may be suspenseful or unsettling to some viewers, most notably those with low tolerance levels for gore and violence.
  • Gristle Gun: A gun consisting of animal parts that shoots teeth instead of bullets is used to shoot Allegra in the shoulder and her associate in the chest. Later another one is used to shoot and kill a man.
  • Regular handguns: Used to shoot and kill that assailant.
  • Rifle: Held by a man as he prepares to shoot Allegra.
  • Flamethrower: Used by a man to burn a diseased pod.
  • Knife: Used by Allegra to stab a man in the back.
  • Machine guns/Explosives: Used by people fighting over Allegra.
  • Handguns: Used to shoot and kill two people.
  • Phrases: "Bastard," "Sucked" and "Jeez."
  • None.
  • A moderate amount of tension-filled music plays during the film.
  • None.
  • At least 5 "f" words, 1 "s" word, 3 hells, 1 ass (used with "hole"), 1 damn, and 11 uses of "Oh God," 3 of "God" and 1 use of "Oh my God" as exclamations.
  • Allegra tells Ted that they need to stop driving so that they can have "an intimate moment together," but she's referring to him attending to the gunshot wound in her shoulder.
  • Some viewers may find some sexuality/eroticism in the way characters lick their fingers and/or make the bio-port holes wet before inserting their fingers (or other items) into such holes (including the way the film portrays such actions).
  • In one scene, Ted (influenced by the virtual reality character he's playing) sticks his tongue into Allegra's bio-port hole. She immediately stops him, but they then passionately make out (against a wall -- and with her stating that their characters are "supposed to jump each other") with heavy breathing, him holding her clothed butt and she rubbing up against him (by also lifting her leg up alongside his body). Moments later she sits on his lap facing away from him and he runs his hands across the front of her body, including her clothed breasts.
  • Some people in a Chinese restaurant smoke.
  • None.
  • People who become addicted to games that become more "realistic" (at least in terms of graphics) with every new release.
  • What really happened in this film (regarding the story).
  • A man uses a "gristle gun" (consisting of animal parts that shoots teeth instead of bullets) to shoot Allegra in the shoulder and her associate in the chest. Two people then open fire on the assailant and shoot him many times, killing him.
  • While aiming his rifle at Allegra, a man slaps Ted on the back of his head. We then see a bloody explosion on that man's neck and see that Ted has "shot" him with a bio-port hole "inserter," which kills him.
  • A man holds a gun on Allegra and then shoots a man several times in the face (with that man trying to hit his assailant with a meat cleaver, but Allegra throws hot soup in his face), resulting in blood squirting out each time until we see that he's dead and has had a big portion of the side of his face blown off (and is very bloody).
  • A man burns a diseased pod with a flamethrower causing it to explode. Allegra then stabs that man in the back with a knife.
  • An explosion sends glass flying across Ted and Allegra. A man then races in and shoots her pod with his machine gun. As they race outside, they see more explosions and machine gun fire.
  • A man is shot several times.
  • Allegra shoots a man with a machine gun.
  • A man is killed when a detonator explodes in his back.
  • Two characters pull out handguns and shoot and kill two other people.

  • Reviewed April 16, 1999 / Posted April 23, 1999

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