In the dream house of the year 2000, Mrs. Tomorrow will find herself living happily inside her own head. Wall, floors and ceilings will be huge unbroken screens on which will be projected a continuous sound and visual display of her pulse and respiration, her brain-waves and blood pressure [... ] all these will surround her with a continuous light show.
J. G. Ballard, The Future of the Future, 1977
Yet upon general release in April 1999, eXistenZ was eclipsed, in Canada as well as everywhere else, by The Matrix — a visually much more advanced, and certainly much more lucrative foray into similar territory. Apart from timing, the comparative simplicity with which the Canadian film was made probably contributed to its obscurity. Where The Matrix relied heavily on expensive computer-generated imagery and wire stunts, eXistenZ was created with trim sets and queasy effects.
True to Cronenberg's habit of creating hermetic little worlds, it's a very small film, shot almost entirely in a Toronto studio, with additional exteriors in surrounding rural areas. Despite being his first feature to employ CGI, Cronenberg's emphasis on the tactile ensured that the majority of its C$31 million budget (the second most expensive Canadian film at the time) was devoted to advanced puppetry: a warehouse staffed with 90 specialist created its mutated creatures and devices.
Furthermore, Carol Spier's set designs blur the distinction between the genuine and the artificial, contrasting anodyne triteness with nauseating novelty, placing the action firmly at an undetermined point in time, while Peter Suschitzky's use of a single lens throughout the film lends it an odd visual unity, keeping the framing off-kilter and modelling pools of soft lighting to provide rich contrasts. The resulting texture and depth provide an almost three-dimensional quality.
Though thematically quite advanced, eXistenZ contains only 45 scenes performed by a small ensemble of characters. The eclectic cast, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Eccleston (the ninth Doctor Who), Canadians Sarah Polley and Don McKellar, reflects Cronenberg's preference for mainly employing character actors he already had experience working with rather than the latest, greatest stars.
The plot revolves around master game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose inventions tap into the user's psyche, utilising his body as a power source, blurring the boundary between reality and game, with the resulting game experience directed by the player's own emotions, fears, and fantasies. These highly involving and addictive games are considered a threat to normal life by a faction of "realists" intent on stopping their designers at any cost.
Following a foiled attempt on her life during a demonstration of her latest creation, Geller finds herself on the lam in the company of inept marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law) — possibly named after the Shulgins' infamous compendium of psychedelic alkaloids — drafted impromptu as her bodyguard, forcing the brilliant cybernetic mother figure to find a way through the labyrinthine plot with a technical virgin in tow; a digital Eve forced to educate her analogue Adam.
The story was inspired by an interview David Cronenberg conducted for Shift Magazine with Salman Rushdie. Cronenberg found the concept of the artist having to live with his creation once it's assumed a life of its own a very "Burroughsian" concept, adding to it the necessity of remaining perpetually on the run as the creation violently clashed with the views of people inhabiting a reality different from the artist's, completely obliterating what the artist thought he had done.
As their conversation had turned towards the impact of computers on art, Cronenberg was intrigued by the proposition that gaming can be as emotionally and intellectually engaging as any work of high art. With eXistenZ he explores this through philosophical illustrations of existentialist principles, without becoming heavy, deep, or depressing. On the contrary, the film has a much lighter, almost playful, tone, with a visual and verbal humour that surpasses the comic moments of Cronenberg's earlier films.