by John Linton Roberson
David Cronenberg is a much more respected director than you'd expect. He's the only "horror" director with a page all to himself in the Oxford History of Film(like Pasolini, Herzog and the like), and possibly the most respected Canadian director in the world. Many of his films pose the best, but most disturbing, metaphors for our thinking in this suddenly artificial world we have embraced.That they scare is partly the point but partly incidental, the result of his tapping into one of the most literal and wrenching metaphors--the body turning against itself, or changing or acting against the mind's will, calling into question what consciousness itself might be. In "The Tenant," Roman Polanski poses a question that illustrates the point well: If he were to cut off his arm, he would most likely then say, "Myself and my arm"(we're assuming he's well-drugged against the incredible pain of autoamputation). But if he were to cut off his head, would he then say, "Myself and my body?" "By what right does my head claim the status of myself?"
"Mutant Offspring of Videodrome, & It's About Damn Time."
Seems silly, till you think how your belief in the integrity of your body, and senses, and perception affects almost every aspect of your life, except, perhaps, your dreams. And suppose the dream were occurring when you woke? Could you really ever know the difference?
Cronenberg has been sputtering & misfiring much of this decade(though I loved NAKED LUNCH and have a soft spot--er, somewhere--for much of CRASH), but here he's gotten back to ground he's been bizarrely slow to grab as rightfully his. One of Cronenberg's best and most complex films is VIDEODROME(1982), starring James Woods, which attempts to reflect in its narrative shift from reality to hallucination to one eventual contradictory--and channel-surfing-like--unquestionable blur, the effect of TV on human consciousness.
So how much richer a vein to mine than TV a human tool which depends upon an interface with, and imitation of, consciousness, the computer. I'm somewhat surprised he hasn't dealt with the Web yet, but in this, the gaming consciousness, such as it appears(my own experience is limited to a couple of enjoyable Monty Python games), is fodder enough for Cronenberg's cybersurrealism.
The changes taking place in the bodies of Cronenberg's characters is not alwaYS for the worse, though it certainly may scare the shit out of his characters and us. More often he looks at disease, mutation, and other alterations in the human condition possibly benevolent in some cases as well, and explores increasingly of late characters who embrace this, in a truly sick and alien way in CRASH, in an oddly light and cheerful way here.
Essentially, a game designer and her bodyguard are on the run from militias out to destroy her new game eXisTenZ, a CD-ROM-like game, a simulation but exaggeration of reality, which hooks directly into your nervous system through semi-organic technology ported directly into the base of your spine. Your mind goes inside the game, which is downloaded directly into your mind. (Makes one wonder what would happen if a virus were put in one) They meet one thug after another, and have to both go into the damaged game to assure the only copy is still intact.
The section which follows will be hilarious to anyone who's played a CD-ROM strategy game. This is the weird logic it follows, having to gather and place certain objects and speak certain combinations of words to get to the next level--and the levels come up suddenly, again, just as in those games; the narrative follows this bizarre structure. Jennifer Jason Leigh explains, looking very seductive(as an amplified version of herself in the game), "You have to play the game to find out why you're playing the game."
This seems fun and cheerful and only becomes creepy when you realize how easy, psychologically, it has become to use technology to wall oneself from reality, how it has become a lifestyle choice. That it becomes, over time, harder to find reasons to resist, for some. It's a subtler but no less real dread Cronenberg explores here, and the film is just plain fun to boot, with an excellent and surprising cast(and rather nasty, brutish and short abuse of Christopher Eccleston, but given the terrible NYC accent he tries here it's a relief), Jennifer Jason Leigh once again proving herself the best goddamn American actress alive.
I can't really say much more about it without giving away the surprises that make it enjoyable to watch, so I'll stop here.
You have to see it to know why you're seeing it. I'll just say there are many more levels to this game than would first appear.This is the only film about "virtual reality" that ever should have been made, and David Cronenberg, bastard offspring of Nabokov and Burroughs, is the only one who could've made it. Take that, William Gibson!
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=1322&reviewer=151
originally posted: 11/20/99 23:31:43