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Film / eXistenZ

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"Hey, tell me the truth...are we still in the game?"

eXistenZ is a 1999 David Cronenberg film starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Callum Keith Rennie, Don McKellar, and Christopher Eccleston that combines Body Horror with Mind Screw and Existential Horror. When you allow the Platonic Cave to mess with your emotional and mental state, how do you know who your friends really are? How do you know right from wrong, and whether you believe it...or just your character? What is real?

It is described by some as the Canadian version of The Matrix, but it involves more Mind Screw and less leather-clad ass-kicking.

This film provides example of:

  • Abnormal Ammo: One of the weapons featured in the movie is a bone gun that fires human teeth—using chunks of jawbone as magazines. It's been called Cronenberg's entire career summed up in a single prop.
  • Accent Relapse: Everybody.
  • Aerith and Bob: "Pikul" is a rather distinctive surname, contrasting with the rest of characters.
  • All Just a Dream: And possibly a Dream Within a Dream. Within A Dream.
  • All There in the Manual: The most iconic object from the film, the pistol made out of bones and teeth, is not named in the film. Background material reveals it's actually called the "gristle gun."
  • Ass Pull: invoked
    • invoked In the climax, the male protagonist is suddenly revealed as another secret agent who was sent to kill his female partner all along, even though this contradicts most of what's been shown of the character. A rare case where it's justified, since it's soon revealed to be part of another layer of the VR game, and the programmed plot twists (extracted from the players' minds) were becoming increasingly random.
    • invoked In the epilogue: After it turns out that eXistenZ doesn't exist and the whole movie actually was another VR game called "transCendenZ" that was being play-tested, Allegra and Pikul both act exactly like the rest of the fanatics that have appeared so far in the film, yank out pistols that they concealed beneath a flap of fake fur on the dog they brought with them, and blow away the transCendenZ developers. This is so out of left field and shocking In-Universe that an onlooker (as the film's final words) nervously asks them if the game is still going on.
  • Ballistic Bone: There's a tooth-firing bio-gun.
  • Big Good: Christopher Eccleston's character.
  • Bilingual Bonus: "Isten" (the word in between the "X" and the "Z") is Hungarian for "God." Deus ex Machina (of a sort), anyone?
    • Robert Lantos, one of the film's producers, is Hungarian. It was probably a deliberate joke for him.
    • transCendenZ: "trans" is 'beyond' in Latin and "enden" is 'to come to an end' in German.
      • The later is hardly a bilingual, since the word "transcend" is already a portmanteau of two Latin words ("trans" + "scanners," meaning "to go beyond"). At best, the Xtreme Kool Letterz put emphasis on the letters "end."
  • Bland-Name Product: XE-60 is just a few letters and digits from WD-40.
  • Bodyguard Crush: Very subtly, the use of this trope is one of the first clues that the movie started inside a game.
  • Brain/Computer Interface: There are biological computers which interface with you through plugging a very phallic tentacle into a port in the base of your spine. The movie plays this for all it's worth, even having characters lick the ports of other characters during sex scenes.
  • But Thou Must!: Lampshaded a few times, where the characters play a virtual reality game.
    • During the dinner scene where Pikul finds a bone gun in his dish.
      Allegra: Pikul, what are you doing?
      Pikul: I don't know. I find this disgusting but I can't help myself.
      Allegra: Good.
      Pikul: Good? You think this is good?
      Allegra: Yeah. It's a genuine game urge. It's something your character was born to do. Don't fight it.
      Pikul: I'm fighting it but it isn't doing me any good.
    • During a sex scene.
      "Our characters are obviously supposed to jump on each other. It's probably a pathetically mechanical attempt to heighten the emotional tension of the next game sequence. No use fighting it."
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: Adapted as a graphic novel.
  • Creepy Gas-Station Attendant: A black marketeer is a gas station owner named... Gas. He tries to kill the main character for the bounty on her head, after installing a faulty bio-port in her companion. He's also Willem Dafoe, in a cameo. When the whole movie turns out to be All Just a Videogame, the guy who played Gas bemoans his part in the game as clichéd.
  • Deep-Immersion Gaming: The virtual reality game has so many layers that the characters are never quite sure if they're back in reality or not.
    Are we still in the game?!
  • Dialogue Tree: Made to look as awkward as they actually would in real life. Until you give a correct response, game characters just repeat the same fidgety actions. Rather than selecting the response text from a menu, player characters just "know" what the right options are.
  • Disobey This Message: Played much more intelligently than most applications of this trope, in a sort of Brechtian sense. The final scene of the movie essentially acknowledges that the whole thing is a work of fiction, and not objective truth. The real point of the film, much like Videodrome, is that we shouldn't blindly accept any messages.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?:
    • The organic game pods are strangely phallic, and plug into a port on a person's lower back. After said ports are lubricated with saliva. The pods then must be touched like controllers, and the way the characters do this looks oddly erotic. Also, the controllers have nipples on them.
    • Also, the whole theme of people fanatically trying to murder an artist is deliberately evocative of the life of Salman Rushdie, who is friends with Cronenberg. It's quite likely that the character of Allegra Geller (and later, Yevgeny Nourish) is a stand-in for Rushdie. The word "fatwa" is even used explicitly.
  • Driving a Desk: Used deliberately.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: In-Universe. After Pikul assembles a new Gristle Gun from his unusual food, he jokingly points the weapon at Allegra and repeats the line used by an assassin who previously tried to kill her. She's not amused, and he apologizes.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Willem Dafoe plays a gas station attendant, simply called "Gas."
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Gas works at Country Gas Station. Within the game, workers at Trout Farm eat lunch at Chinese Restaurant.
  • Fantastic Firearms: The protagonist Pikul jerry-rigs an organitek "gristle-gun" out of the remains of his lunch (some kind of bioengineered giant frog). It uses jawbones as a magazine and fires the teeth.
  • Foreshadowing: The fact that the entire film takes place within the game is hinted at by the first assassin pulling out a gristle gun, Allegra telling Ted that they need to pull over to have an intimate moment like it's game script that their characters need to act out to grow closer, the gas station attendant's name being simply Gas, and Ted saying that "reality" still feels like a game after he and Allegra exit the "game" for the first time.
    • The DVD Commentary points out that one particular scene early on where Allegra and Pikul are at the County Gas Station makes absolutely no sense on its own. The scene in question is when we see Allegra outside the gas station while Pikul and Gas are inside, kicking at the dust and looking at the general area with something close to wonder and then reacting to a strange two-headed lizard. According to the commentary, Allegra is in fact admiring the detail of the transCendenZ game-world and the scene was included for the sole purpose of foreshadowing the reveal that the characters are inside a game the entire time.
  • The Game Never Stopped: Played with several times, with characters not knowing if they are still in the game. Including in the ending.
  • Hollywood Game Design: The film depicts Allegra Geller as the world's premiere game designer of the eponymous game. Aside from egregious playing straight of No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup, none of her associates even seem to have the slightest idea what eXistenZ is actually about. Justified, as none of the people playing transCendenZ are professional game designers.
  • Inside a Computer System: The film centers around a virtual reality gaming system that people enter, and in some cases you can't tell whether they're in a game or in reality.
  • Living Battery: The biological game device runs on the energy of the user, since it plugs directly into a "bioport" (an extra orifice artificially installed in the lower back). It's suggested that all modern gaming devices operate the same way.
  • It Makes Sense in Context: The movie is so weird that several scenes would make no sense whatsoever to an uninformed viewer who started watching them out-of-context for the first time. Even if the viewer were to carefully watch the whole movie uninterrupted, all the events would barely follow a loose dreamlike internal logic, that is until the ending, which explains most of the weird stuff seen throughout the movie but raises new questions.
  • Mind Screw: The film is Philip K. Dick-like in the mind screw department. It features a VR game within a VR game within a VR game within a VR game, the characters openly question whether they're still in the game at every level (and for bonus points, compare real-life to VR), switch allegiances multiple times, and reference things that happened at other levels.
  • The Mole: Oh, just about everybody.
  • New Media Are Evil: There's a whole cult which regards eXistenZ, a new virtual reality gaming platform made from Organic Technology, as evil incarnate and its inventor Allegra Gellar as a demoness who must be killed to prevent the game's dissemination. After it's revealed that most of the movie was itself a virtual game called tranCendenZ, it turns out that the two protagonists were members of such a group, with their emotions seeping into the plotline of the game.
  • Nipple and Dimed: Done with video game interfaces.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup:
    Allegra: In this pod is the only, the original version of eXistenZ: an entire game system that cost 38 million to develop...not including prerelease marketing costs...and I'm locked outside my own game.
    Pikul: Are you serious? That's the only version that exists?
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping:
    • Allegra comments that Robert Silverman's Irish accent is not very convincing, and that he's a generally bland character. This is in contrast to the excitable nutjobs he usually plays in Cronenberg's films.
    • More obviously, you can hear Jude Law's accent crack when he shouts.
  • Organic Technology:
    • eXistenZ runs off of little flesh computers that plug into ports in your spine. Interestingly, transCendenZ, unlike eXistenZ, runs off of conventional electronics.
    • The gristle gun, built out of bones and teeth, also works like this. Pikul assembles one out of his lunch special and a tooth bridge from his mouth.
  • Platonic Cave: Subverted: transCendenZ is just as fake as eXistenZ. Maybe.
  • Post Cyber Punk: One of the major undercurrents of the film is that, just like horror films and video games, although the game world is unreal, bizarre, and often gross, it's not really dangerous to anyone in the real world beyond the fiction, and censoring it is a bad idea; the real danger is ideological extremism.
  • Prelap: When the scene jumps from the forced make-out to Trout Farm, breathy make-out sounds continue as a dead amphibian dangles from Pikul's hand.
  • Reality Bleed: They call this a "reality bleed-through effect."
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: The overarching plotline of a Realist hunt for Allegra's head was inspired by the controversy surrounding British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, which saw violent outcry from conservative Muslims for perceived blasphemous content and resulted in Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa calling for Rushdie's murder, still in effect to this daynote . Director David Cronenberg decided to use the fatwa as the main basis for the film after interviewing Rushdie in 1995, and directly alluded to his inspiration in the script with Vinokur outright calling the bounty on Allegra a fatwa.
  • Recursive Reality: This is the central point of the film - the protagonists are confused about how many levels of virtual reality Game Within A Game there are, and what they're supposed to do to win. And in the end, they still aren't sure if they're still in the game or not.
  • Scaramanga Special: The pistol made of bones from the Chinese Restaurant meal, which happened to literally be the Special of the Day.
  • Schrödinger's Butterfly: How many levels of this virtual reality are there? And how do you know when you're in real life?
  • Serious Business: Darkly parodied. People are willing to kill each other over a video game. But, as Cronenberg's friend Salman Rushdie could tell you, that's not so far off from the truth...
  • Sex Starts, Story Stops: Lampshaded. The two main characters suddenly start making out for no apparent reason. Allegra tells Pikul to just go with it, as it's just a scene written into the program in order to increase the emotional intensity between them. At the end it's revealed that the two were actually in a relationship to begin with, although that might have been a cover story. And they might still be in the game.
  • Shout-Out:
    • To The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch: the takeout Allegra and Ted eat early in the film is called "Perky Pat's."
    • One of the eXistenZ games on the shelf is Hit By a Car, which is a reference to Cronenberg's previous film Crash.
  • Strangely Arousing: The two main characters are in an advanced form of video game where their characters suddenly feel aroused and start making out; at first they are confused, but quickly figure out that the game's script calls for their characters to start a love affair, so they just go with it to advance the plot, all the while talking on a meta-level about the significance of the whole thing and their situation.
  • This Is Reality: Inverted in the movie, which has several 'nested' realities thanks to people playing a virtual reality game that uses all of one's senses. Hence, the characters might be playing the game, then in the game start playing the game, then in that game start playing the game to further something in the 'earlier' level of the game. The Reveal of the final scene of the movie takes place in a level above where it started — less than five minutes out of a hundred — and things are still so confusing that the shock causes one minor character to comment, "Hey, tell me the truth. Are we still in the game?" No answer. Fade to Black.
  • Unusual User Interface: Organic game pods that plug into bio-ports.
  • Win to Exit: Almost all of the film actually takes place in a virtual reality gameworld with assassins stalking the main characters. It's only after the heroine exposes her partner as an operative who was sent to kill her all along and kills him instead that the game slowly unravels and she wakes up for real.
  • Xtreme Kool Letterz: The title uses some interesting spelling.