In March 1999, The Matrix was released to critical acclaim and commercial success. A month later, David Cronenberg released eXistenZ. The film begins similarly to the Wachowskis’ thriller, with a VR developer going on the run after an assassination attempt during the focus testing of her latest game. Because it also touched on themes about virtual reality and anti-technology rebellion, it was largely dismissed as an also-ran. In the twenty years since its release, eXistenZ has garnered some recognition, but it remains a cult film even by the standards of Cronenberg fans. Which is a shame, because it is not only Cronenberg’s more successful followup to his earlier Videodrome — it’s the best video game movie ever made.
Long Live the New(er) Flesh
One of the more unique elements of Cronenberg’s body of work is his doubling phenomenon: Scanners (1981) and Dead Ringers (1988) both feature gynecological themes and obsessively bound siblings; Rabid (1977) and Crash (1996) proceed from the world-shaking effects of a vehicle accident; and Eastern Promises (2007) re-explores the issue of culture clash stumbled through in M. Butterfly (1993). While many prominent directors circle back to the same themes over the course of their careers, Cronenberg will often all but remake an early project years later, showing off his growth as a human being with new nuances in execution. The Fly (1985), Cronenberg’s most commercially successful film, essentially “halves” the director’s career up to 2000 into points before and after he began to assess his own misogyny and its impact on his work.
On either side of this divide sit Videodrome (1983) and eXistenZ (1999). While they themselves are doubles, each exploring the effect of a new medium on its audience, Videodrome has by far the more entrenched fanbase. It serves as a somewhat bald explication of media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, whose phrase “the medium is the message” still rings true as a method of unpacking the relationship between a piece of content, its packaging, and how that content could serve as a smokescreen for the packaging’s more insidious and unspoken intent (he would, no doubt, have a great deal to say about the “live service” model of modern videogames).
McLuhan passed away in 1980, and at times Videodrome feels more like a tribute and visualization of his work than an expression of Cronenberg’s own ideas about those same theories. The film visualizes the elements of McLuhan’s work that have continued to resonate, giving the interconnected “global village” a dreamlike reality through television channels and even follows McLuhan’s more eye-rolling musings about humans as “the sex organs of the machine world,” which if nothing else provides an avenue to more of that excellent body horror.
But sex and sexual bodies are Videodrome’s biggest problem. The film introduces the concept of sadomasochism but seems unclear on what to say about it, ultimately discarding it as a bit of lurid foreshadowing (Cronenberg would later give the topic its due in Crash). But the film’s greatest victim is Nicki, a victim of sexualized violence screened for titillation whose onscreen appearances involve her being framed in a sexualized manner for audience consumption. She is ultimately no more than a cautionary tale and object of temptation for Max, and it would be generous to say the film is even aware of the troubling, gendered nature of the violence it presents. Instead, in thinking no further than creating a heightening of narrative stakes, the film replicates the medium it set out to critique.
The Revolution of the Real
That paradoxical question — “can you criticize a medium using another work within that medium?” — seems to have stuck with Cronenberg. Sixteen years later, his answer was a film that requires a willingness to strap in and go along for the ride on first viewing. The story opens on a focus group testing out the new game eXistenZ, created by superstar developer Allegra Geller. Things are thrown into chaos after an attempt on Geller’s life, and she’s forced to go on the run with security guard Ted Pikul. When Geller discovers her gamepod was damaged in the shooting, now apparently a hostile move by a rival company, the two must enter the game to ensure none of the code has been damaged.
The last hurrah of body horror-centric weird fiction before Cronenberg began devoting himself to more emotionally distant character studies, the film delights in plot twists and Cronenberg’s pet themes: fears of contamination, heterosexual male anxieties around penetration, infrastructure as a rotting organism. But he avoids the easy trap of treating video games as a shallow gimmick. This movie understands, lovingly even, what made a game tick in 1999.
The world inside of eXistenZ is one that runs in patterns. Geller and Pikul discuss the cheap emotional shortcutting and dissonance of their characters suddenly deciding to have sex as they enter a cutscene of sorts, NPCs cycle their dialogue until queued with the right key phrase, looking slightly dead-eyed in the same way as a future BioWare or Bethesda townsperson. A Chinese gamer we see in the real world becomes a hackneyed stereotype in his game role, and the film’s dream logic relies at several points on the concept of railroading — Pikul intuits what he must do though there is no real reason why he should know.
Like McLuhan’s theories long before it, the broad strokes of Cronenberg’s game world still feel applicable even if certain details are off the mark. Its world isn’t far removed from even a modern MMORPG, while its themes of haves and have-nots in terms of console accessibility (the ability to use a gamepod requires literal invasive surgery) are still relevant in the modern VR landscape. And then, of course, there is the ending.
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Are We Still in the Game?
eXistenz’s final scene returns to another focus group in a room identical to the first, with all of the film’s actors now in different roles. Geller, developer of eXistenZ, was in fact a player in a game called transCendenZ. Their in-game informant is now the developer. As everyone begins to pick up their things, the scenario begins again. Now Geller and Pikul point the gun and repeat the lines of a successful assassination. And a bystander, once a waiter, asks the final line: “are we still in the game?”
Given the era of the film’s release, it’s easy to read this finale — players who recreate the violence within the game, and game protesters who do effectively the same thing despite claiming to resist its evil influence — in the context of the false narrative then being spun around the Columbine shooters. The New York Post certainly did, hands wringing all the while. Even from a modern perspective there’s something there, given the film’s notable usage of a female developer as the subject of fanatical violence.
But as games media continues to circle the drain of its own capitalistic hellscape while we’ve also seen several quite excellent anti-capitalist games like The Outer Worlds and Disco Elysium, it feels worthwhile to return instead to Cronenberg’s self-imposed question: can a medium critique itself? Games have run up against this problem for years regarding the subject of player agency.
Titles like Spec Ops: The Line and OFF ultimately had to force the player’s hand into atrocities in order to comment on those trends in other games; even Undertale, which all but cracked weaving player choice into a commentary on game violence, required combat in the penultimate battle against Asgore. On the more metatextual end of the scale, Borderlands 3’s background incorporation of evil corporate villains looks a bit rich given Randy Pitchford’s rapid descent into absurd levels of CEO bastardry. Nor is this a trend limited to videogames, as anyone unfortunate enough to sit through Funny Games or A Serbian Film — two lurid hyperviolent treatises about how anyone watching lurid hyperviolence is bad and should feel bad — can attest.
The script does offer a small, sly rebuttal of the “games create violence” argument, informing the audience that the story’s violent plot was drawn from the minds of the players, including the soon-to-be assassins. Essentially, those seeking to do harm will find a vehicle for that desire, regardless of its innate characteristics. But as a story about media, eXistenZ essentially eats itself: transCendenZ’s game is supposedly one about the grand struggle between game creators and “realists” fighting against the game’s evil impulses, but that fight is ultimately subsumed by the medium.
Character diatribes about the nature of reality and the thematic importance of the gamepads become fewer and fewer as the characters go on the run and get involved in more gunfights; eventually the double-crosses become so muddied that the characters have literally no idea which side they’re shooting people in the name of, each merely a convenient means to the same end, and the scenario collapses on a confused battlefield with Geller shooting Pikul. Any nuance of the ethical or narrative debate is lost in Geller excitedly shouting that she has won as the game dissolves around them. And then, the film’s coda answers that explosion of bloodshed with one of its own.
If the medium is the message, then a medium is always implicitly at war with itself when creating criticism. Modern indie developers are well aware of this fact, as the games often derivatively termed “walking simulators,” just to name one facet of the discussion, question the violent goal-oriented trends of gaming’s history. By scratching the surface of this discussion back in 1999, seeking to pose his own answer to McLuhan’s theories rather than simply replicate them, Cronenberg created a text that’s right at home with the modern games industry.