In 1999, there were a handful of movies that made the strange trip to cyberspace. The best known one was The Matrix. But for all that film's impact on culture and moviemaking, it's the lesser-seen Existenz that feels more relevant to the real world, more than 20 years on..
I liked The Matrix. I still do. But it functions for me more as a perfect movie of the late 90s: Dark City vibe, black leather, Y2K fears, and a combination of '90s Batman-style comic movies and early cyberpunk. Yes, it redefined what an action movie felt like, and it provided a template for the sci-fi-inflected superhero origin story years before Batman Begins and Iron Man.
But we're in 2020 now. It's Existenz time.
Existenz (Or eXistenZ, if you want to spell it correctly) was never that simple. David Cronenberg's weird, weird film about virtual worlds and gamers felt odd even when I first saw it in a theater in San Diego in April 1999. The pacing, the biological objects… the awkwardness.
I love David Cronenberg films. Before recent critical darlings like Crash and A History of Violence, the 77-year-old Canadian director helped pioneer the "body horror" movement, working his way from pulpy exploitation flicks like Scanners and Videodrome to more polished films in the 1980s like The Dead Zone, The Fly and Dead Ringers. (His novel, Consumed, folds in consumer tech, too: it's a favorite of mine.) I think I love his movies because they have an alien oddness to their flow. Existenz doesn't move comfortably, even for Cronenberg. It feels like a B-movie: low-budget and full of performances that feel… off. It feels like a joke at times. Is it a joke that it's aware of? Cronenberg films always have a distancing effect to me, an alienation. Existenz maximizes it.
I left feeling uncertain: glad Cronenberg took on games and online presence, a bit frustrated by the outcome. But it stuck with me.
The Matrix has massive rows of bodies wired into a Terminator vision of robot domination. Existenz has… mutated growing things. People play on shriveled pink "metaflesh" gamepods that vibrate and have twisted umbilical cords… that plug into wet holes in people's backs. People's phones are glowing rubbery eggs. There are guns made of bone and flesh. Game systems are made out of mutated frogs and salamanders grown in ponds.
None of this makes sense… and all of it does.
It always felt a step ahead of The Matrix, because The Matrix falls into classic cyberpunk while Existenz leans into biopunk. OK, The Matrix had bioports on people's backs too…and used humans as batteries. But The Matrix is about leaving that behind, while Existenz leans into it as a freaky way forward. Existenz has bone guns, and electronics factories that look like amphibian breeding tanks, and the game console is a breathing, pulsing… thing. At that time, few books or films explored what biopunk even meant. (Paul di Filippo's short story collection, Ribofunk, was one exception that I remember, and Rudy Rucker's Ware books explored some ideas.)
The movie's undercurrent of politicized antigaming now reads like some twisted mix of Gamergate and societal rejection of social networks and screen addiction. The battle over what constitutes reality takes place between evangelical factions. Meanwhile, the discussions of game developers and focus groups remind me of actual workshops I've attended. There's realism in the absurdism.
Existenz' sense of humor lies underneath most scenes, and keeps expanding every time I see it: reality is absurd, and most of the game's bizarre plot lines seem like some sort of cosmic joke. In 2020, the whole notion of porting into another universe via a mutated flesh tentacle just sounds like a Rick and Morty episode. It's no longer a leap.
None of this makes sense…and all of it does.
But there's something else that makes me come back to Existenz… it's the celebration of immersion. People gathered together, getting intimate, wanting an experience together. This is a feeling I've seen in immersive theater. This feeling is in escape rooms. This feeling is in theme parks like Star Wars Galaxy's Edge or Universal's Wizarding World. It's our struggle to transcend. And it's also about companies leaning into our need to transcend, and manipulating it. I feel it in immersive theater, in VR, everywhere.
Claire L. Evans, writer and lead singer of YACHT, just recently tweeted that Existenz may be the truest Philip Dick movie adaptation ever made, even though it's not an adaptation of Dick at all. But maybe in a way it is. Cronenberg has adapted so many other unfilmable authors: DeLillo, Burroughs, Ballard. It makes cosmic sense.
I still don't really know what Existenz is truly about. But I remember the last line. One I won't repeat now just in case you haven't seen it. It lingers with me. Because, well, what is reality now? And are you feeling like you're able to escape from it?
Cronenberg may be able to help.