So I finally watched a David Cronenberg film that didn’t blow me away. Actually, let me rephrase that. It blew my mind – like all Cronenberg movies – but I just don’t think it really worked.
A little background: ever since watching Crash a few years ago I’ve been steadily working through his catalog. He is one of those rare directors that makes intelligent, bizarre films that seem to work on all levels: writing, dialogue, performances, cinematography, awesome Howard Shore scores (if you only know Shore from the LOTR scores, check out music from Crash and Videodrome). On my recent trip to Portland I came upon a wonderful little store called Strange Maine, where I found a bevy of cheaply-priced VHS tapes, which I ravaged, walking away with a sackful ranging from Don’t Torture a Duckling to Sunday in the Park with George. I also picked up eXistenZ, which was at the top of my list. It had a killer cast, promised old-school Cronenberg mind-bendingness, how could it go wrong?
Well, here’s how. From the beginning, the acting and the dialog across the board is as stunted and cartoony as anything from Scanners (which I tend to forgive because it was early in its career). The opening scene features a cheering crowd of extras that look and sound like they’re from a badly dubbed anime. In fact the performances are so silly that some have questioned if it were intentional, reflecting the dubious-nature-of-reality-theme in the film, but I think that’s a bit too convenient of an excuse. This weighs heavily against the typical Cronenbergian imagery in the film; the pulsing fleshy game controllers, technologically-constructed bodily orifices, and horrific mutant animals become more ridiculous than intriguing when framed and elucidated by awkwardly-delivered lines. It becomes camp and, even if it were intentional – which I doubt, it is not good camp.
Edelstein notes that eXistenz came after a series of “calamitous receptions” to such films as Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, and Crash, which is why the film seems to be some sort of Videodrome-lite. I don’t know if I’d characterize those films as “calamitous”, since Naked Lunch and Crash quickly developed cult-status, but I understand his search for a reason for this film. The film is still adventurous, it is still complex and provocative, but it quite simply doesn’t hold together, even with the added touch of there being fourth wall commentary on the feebleness of the plot, and its lack of cohesiveness, which acts as a lazy deus ex machina.
eXistenZ an oddity in an otherwise near-perfect oeuvre, made even the more odd by its normally-stellar cast. You just get the sense throughout the movie that they don’t know what in the hell they are supposed to be acting about, and one can hardly expect the audience to be sold on it if the actors are not.
Mafoo’s one-line sum-up review:
eXistenZ is a good movie to get baked, watch with a group of friends, and then compare to the Matrix afterwards.