Few films about or based on video games successfully transpose the medium's essence to the screen. Typically, in the case of adaptations, a generic action/adventure/sci-fi narrative is awkwardly reskinned with a recognizable game IP; it seems filmmakers are still learning how to adapt games to cinema, servicing fans with familiar characters, visual signifiers, and lore rather than capturing the structure, encounters, and visceral affect that make games so satisfying to play. Ironically, the average blockbuster has more-or-less surpassed vanilla game adaptations in their replication of mainstream video game form: a series of ultrakinetic and clearly delineated nodes with discrete objectives—rendered largely through CGI, of course—beaded together with interstitial plot advancement analogous to game cinematics. Consider The Fast and the Furious series, which are strung together like a progression of levels with increasingly challenging boss encounters.
Released in 1999, eXistenZ sees David Cronenberg toying with these nascent conventions of cinematic storytelling in games. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Geller, recognized as the finest virtual reality designer. Her software is accessed through biotechnological “game pods” that connect via umbilical cords to “bio-ports” in players’ spinal cords; the games are so popular that nearly all people are outfitted with the strange, anal-like orifices. Jude Law is Ted Pikul, a security guard who happens to be watching over Geller as she demonstrates her newest game, eXistenZ, and is suddenly fired upon as a fatwa is declared by an analog resistance. Geller and Pikul set out to repair and ultimately test the eXistenZ game pod while dodging the “Realist underground” assassins and corporate rivals. And like any good game movie, it proceeds as a strictly linear series of compartmentalized encounters with characters whose vaguely antiseptic qualities suggest the uncanny valley of digital NPCs; meanwhile, Law, as a new player, struggles with his own moral choices versus the limited ones prescribed by the game.
To date, eXistenZ is Cronenberg’s most recent classical body horror film, and indeed, its themes of corporate espionage, mind control, technologically stratified societies, and licking weird sex organs that materialize on people’s bodies are straight out of Scanners and Videodrome. On some level, it might be considered a retread (the Realist cry of “Death to the demoness, Allegra Geller!” echoes the force, if not the McLuhanesque connotations, of “Long live the new flesh!”), but Cronenberg is working in a distinctly metacinematic (and transmedia) mode, and the familiar territory grants him freedom to riff on a new media environment in cinema. If you cut the umbilical cords and turn up the volume, it would be easy enough to see that it shares the same digital DNA as Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat.