Retro Rewatch: Existenz


Retro Rewatch is an ongoing editorial that takes a look into certain films, conventions, crazes, and characters of the horror genre years after their heyday. It is an effort to try and put the magnifying glass up to the horror world with the much needed luxuries of time and perspective applied in order to fully understand the impact and social significance of these projects/themes/ideas (if any). So for the inaugural installment of Retro Rewatch, I give you the movie "Existenz" David Cronenberg is no stranger to by any stretch of the imagination.

If you can remember, Maven wrote a profile about Canada's own prolific auteur while his various films have been mostly praised by the faithful. Throughout his filmography, he has made a number of fantastic movies all with their own identity and their individual take on certain themes and ideas. Existenz may be one of his lesser known efforts, but it is no different than the others. Some people see this film as a horror/drama hybrid which was an inevitable step on the ladder between the absolutely insane/gory/ brilliant works of his career prior (Shivers, Scanners, The Fly, Videodrome) to the mature filmmaking of David Cronenberg's latest ventures (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises). I wouldn't say that I entirely disagree, but I would say that Existenz is much more than just a peg on a ladder. Existenz starts off in what appears to be some kind of deconstructed church which may have been either sold or just temporarily turned into some kind of social hall. Eager gamers hand in their tickets to be involved in a beta testing group for a new and revolutionary game. Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a video game developer who has just finished her latest masterpiece.

These games are not just a paddle against a TV though, these "bioports" (which are made of living animal tissue) are plugged into a port at the bottom of a person's spine (which is akin to getting your ears pierced at the mall, everyone does it). While their bodies resemble a dream like state, their consciousness is fooled into believing that they are in another reality all together. Before the game ever gets started however, an assassin tries to kill Allegra and security guard Ted Pikul (Jude Law) is forced to whisk her away to safety. The goal is to find sanctuary by getting to a ski chalet where Allegra and Ted can take refuge while Allegra's game pod (which houses the only copy of the game) can be fixed and hopefully saved.

At this point, a lot is at stake. Allegra could lose the only copy of the game that she has singled handedly been designing for years. This is of course important to her, but what we see more prevalently (and in gory detail) is the importance of the physical pod and its place in her life. We see the pod while it is cut open which easily rivals any kind of beauty found in medicine and organ study and the effects of surgery on it. The pod isn't just a game to Allegra, it's more like a pet that she has become way too attached to. To see it in pain is heartbreaking to Allegra while at the opposite end of the spectrum, Ted sees it like most normal people would. It's a broken machine and it needs to be fixed. Ted has never played these kinds of games because he doesn't have a bioport and has therefore never experienced this level of gaming before. To make sure the game works, Ted and Allegra have to play it (Ted gets an illegal bioport put in).

They go into this world of the game where reality and fantasy have an extremely disorienting view to anyone watching the movie. This is where the Cronenberg aesthetic shines because a lesser director at this point could have ruined the film. Everything in this reality gets turned upside down. The actions unfolding at this point in the story are now causing shifts in the gaming world. Your interactions with certain people are triggered by certain phrases. The different roads that you can take in the game determine where you end up and with whom left alive. Now what does that all sound like? Life? Well the realism of the game is like nothing other, you "feel" pain or pleasure, but not remorse because it's just a game. You can just start over from the beginning if things don't go your way.

Since these characters are so realistic, what does it mean for someone to inhabit this world and basically run amok in it? In the film, Allegra is treated like a god to the gaming community, which at this point in time doesn't include just kids. Its people from all walks of life and age range who are just aching to get into this virtual world. Without any doubt at all, it is clear that there is a whole bunch of symbolism going on here. Allegra is the creator and everyone else is underneath her. She invented this magnificent world where you can take out your frustrations, angers, and fears on whoever you want because even though everything about it is so real, it's just a game. It's like creating a second life account that you could actually inhabit where the rules of the game are only limited to that of your imagination.

If there is anything that I can definitely attest to, it's that in the gaming world where have a game like say Fallout 3, there are actions, events, and characters that have an effect on you and your standing as a person. You can essentially choose to play the game as a good character or an evil one. Everyone chooses evil, ask anyone who has played the game. Good is easy, we are forced into that every day by police, teachers, and society. Why wouldn't I be evil in a world without consequence? So now that it's been ten years, I feel that a lot of these ideas, themes, and concepts really hold up to our times, especially taking into context the advancement that technology and gaming has made since 1999. It seems that it is possible in my conceivable life time that a game may actually come out that resembles Allegra Gellar's game.

What? I sound crazy? Well it's already theorized that by 2050, it may be possible to download you consciousness to a computer. Well that's if technology keeps going at the rate it has been. That is what really causes Existenz to jump from a normal sci-fi/horror flick into territory reserved for the study of society when the film was made. It's ability to not necessarily predict the future, but give you something else to think about. Would society be ready for the type of advancement? Are we ready right now? What will happen to people? Should these things even exist? Personal responsibility comes into question, not in the movie, but much after… like three weeks after you've seen the movie. For me on the other hand, I'm still thinking about it and talking about it 10 years since its release. Is it a cult classic, a fitting analysis, or complete forgettable?: A Fitting Analysis. Academia will be looking back at this mindf**k for a long time.

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