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.