Allegra Geller, the world's leading games designer, has come up with a new virtual reality game, which she is testing with a focus group. However, when an assassin attacks the gathering, she goes on the run with a young marketing man, taking the prototype game with her.
For the first time since 1983's Videodrome, David Cronenberg is here working from a script based on a story he originated himself, which makes it a purer work even than such thoroughly Cronenbergised efforts as The Fly and Dead Ringers, and unburdened by the schizoid feel of such literary adaptions as The Naked Lunch and Crash.
A side effect of this de facto comeback is that the cutting edge ideas Cronenberg began to explore in Videodrome have now become assimilated into the mainstream, rendering eXistenZ a little late in the day when tackling virtual reality, games-playing, near-future corporate wars and "the realist underground".
As with Videodrome, the plot breaks from "reality" early on as a demonstration of a new game designed by Allegra Geller (Leigh) is interrupted by an assassin wielding an ingenious organic gun composed of mutant amphibian parts which fires human teeth as bullets. This is guessably a move in a continuing game that proceeds through layers of reality as the wounded Allegra, on the run with PR nerd/security man Ted Pikul (Law), has to enter the world of her own game and take Ted with her, which involves having the reluctant hero fitted with a spinal implant "bio-port" in the backwoods gas station run by treacherous Gas (Dafoe). Once in the game, further layers have to be penetrated Chinese box fashion as Allegra and Ted find a fantasy world disturbingly close to their reality.
Like many Cronenberg films (Videodrome excepted), eXistenZ suffers from a weak male lead, but has an unusual heroine and an array of eccentric supporting red herrings (even the dodgy accents are "explained"). Less weighty than Cronenberg's more "important" work, this rediscovers a pleasure in action filmmaking absent since his "early, funny ones" and deploys the mannerisms (freak character names, invented jargon, machine-flesh interfaces) we loved in Shivers, Rabid, The Brood and Scanners.
While it might rehash material worked over by many others, it does so in an unusual, alternate world manner, while addressing again the morality of violent escapism, and probing the increasingly uncomfortable merging of games strategy and narrative fiction.