selected from Starburst #248
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Mystical machine gun? Jude Law in eXistenZThis movie is the new Videodrome. David Cronenberg's futuristic thriller does nothing particularly new that we haven't seen before from the Canadian Abominable Showman, but it confidently expands on the outré themes of his earlier work for another typical 'Body Horror' outing. Many of the cult director's fans will see eXistenZ as a smart return to form after the rarefied wayward weirdness of Naked Lunch and Crash. Others will view Cronenberg's repossession of his trademark bio-mechanoid imagery as a major step back from the cutting edge where he truly belongs.

Whatever side of the fence you're on, nothing can detract from the fact that Cronenberg has put the pedal to his mettle with eXistenZ and created another crowd-pleasing complex flight of surreal fantasy. If the suspense feels familiar and the bizarre imagery registers as merely characteristic, it's the twisted twist-and-turn cleverness of the virtual reality game setting which adds extra demented edge to the dazzling grotesquerie indulged in with his usual glee.

Set in a near-future where Playstation designers are worshipped as superstars, top celebrity Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has invented a games system, copyrighted eXistenZ, that taps so deeply into its user's fears and desires it blurs the boundaries between reality and escapism. To play the game you plug your computer console directly into your spinal column via a bio-port (the routine piercing operation can be carried out at garages) and organically enter the digital Fantasy universe.

That's what a focus group of game players are doing as eXistenZ begins. Allegra wants to play her pioneering game with a bunch of devotees in order to smooth over problems and iron out any bugs. But just as they are about to commence, an anti-eXistenZialist protester attempts to assassinate Allegra and in the ensuing pandemonium she escapes with her bodyguard Ted Pikul (Jude Law) to go on the run. It seems that her employers, Antenna Research, have been infiltrated by Realists worried about the company's commitment to deforming reality for the Nintendo hooked population. The only way to expose them is to play the game and explore the areas altered by their industrial espionage.

However, Ted has never played before and must get bio-ported by Gas (Willem Dafoe), a shady petrol pump attendant, before taking the plunge into Allegra's malleable manufactured world. It's a world where the breathing MetaFlesh game pods they use are built from synthetic DNA crossbred with the nervous systems of fish, two headed amphibians roam the wilds, mutant reptiles are served up in a sinister isolated Chinese restaurant and teeth-firing guns made out of animal gristle are the combat weapon of choice.

"You have to play the game to find out why you are playing the game" is the succinct line of dialogue that leads to one of Cronenberg's cleverest endings. No clues. Just play close attention to the opening moments of eXistenZ and then climb aboard the diseased thrill ride for a phantasmagorical trip packed with Cronenberg's patented Shape of Rage notions and great performances from a marvellous cast including Christopher Eccleston, Ian Holm and Sarah Polley. And if you're wondering what on earth pod surgeon Holm is doing with that appalling accent, the fiendish climax will provide the humorous answer.

Yet while eXistenZ is an enormously entertaining and brilliantly conceived Fantasy action adventure, what it isn't is disturbing or horrifying. Well, not in the key way you'd expect from the envelope-pushing DC. The hyperbolic intensity of his earlier work like The Brood or The Fly, even his masterpiece Crash, is sorely missing. Even when Allegra bends Ted over to finger his sore bio-port in the most sexually ambiguous conception, the effect is amusing more than erotically spine-tingling. Is it because we've become so used to Croneberg's visceral-versa now? Could be. But even without such fright frissons, nausea nudges or shock sensations, eXistenZ is still an amazing work of genius, vision, scope and originality from a fully-fledged genre icon so it seems churlish to complain.

Starburst rating:
out of 10

eXistenZ picture copyright Alliance

'a work of genius, vision, scope and originality from a fully-fledged genre icon'

eXistenZ: Producers, Robert Lantos, Andras Hamori & David Cronenberg. Co-producers, Bradley Adams, Damon Bryant & Michael MacDonald. Director & writer, David Cronenberg. Music, Howard Shore. Special effects supervisor, Jim Isaac. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Christopher Eccleston, Don McKellar & Callum Keith Rennie. 90 mins. Cert R/18. Released America: April. Britain: May.
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