LIKE ALL THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION, eXistenZ SEEMS to be taking place about five minutes from now, in a world where virtual reality games have become so commonplace that most people think nothing of drilling a "bioport" directly into their spine in order to plug into a game. The games run off of a fleshy, biomechanical pod with umbilical cords to be inserted into each player's bioport. Once the game starts, the player becomes a cast member in an artificial world where everything looks and feels "real," but where some actions are preprogrammed and others are not. The biggest celebrities of the day are game designers, and none is bigger or more brilliant than the reclusive Allegra Geller (the perfectly cast Jennifer Jason Leigh, delivering one of her best performances), whose latest, greatest achievement is a game called eXistenZ.

A test run of the game--with volunteers playing along with Allegra--is being watched rather disinterestedly by Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a public relations trainee at Allegra's corporation who is moonlighting as a security guard. As the players begin jacking into the game, a nutjob comes into the room and starts shooting the place up. Maybe the guy is a Realist, one of the fanatics determined to end virtual reality and its confusing variations on "real" reality; or maybe he's a ruthless warrior from a rival corporation. Either way, Allegra gets shot--and since she doesn't know who to trust, she has to go on the lam. Since this is a movie, the nerdy, inexperienced Pikul gets dragged along with her. They have a series of adventures, and even fall in love.

David Cronenberg is working from his first original script since Videodrome, and what he's come up with is, in some ways, a revisitation to that movie's themes. Inspired by the fatwa against Salman Rushdie (and clearly, also by the less threatening but still obtuse furor Cronenberg generated with his last movie, Crash), this is one of the wittiest, most perceptive movies about movies--and how we think they affect us--since James Woods had videotapes jammed into his stomach in Videodrome.

Instead of the mewing vaginal slits seen in that movie, here the modes of access are the aforementioned bioports, holes placed in the back just above the waistline. The game pod is equally cute and disturbing, a living biomechanical organism that looks like a cross between a computer mouse and a sex toy. Pikul is one of the few human beings who's never had a bioport installed into his spine, fearful of the invasive surgery (the definitive Cronenbergian phobia). Allegra is shocked to find out he's never had the surgery, and infuriated that he's never played her games. Though the original, irreplaceable eXistenZ game pod has been injured, the anxious Allegra needs to test out the game with someone she deems "friendly." She picks Pikul, insisting he have a bioport installed.

When Pikul finally sits down with Allegra to play eXistenZ, she gives him a guided tour of an injured version of the game whose goals and rules, even when fully functional, are determined by the participants. Basically, you play the game to understand why you're playing the game. eXistenZ allows you to be anybody you want and do anything you dream of, but in the end you always return to yourself.

It's all one big existential metaphor, then. (The press kit relates that Cronenberg had Leigh and Law bone up on Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche for their roles.) Cronenberg is the premier cinematic metaphorist of our time--which, by the way, is why critics are missing the point when they try to compliment his films by claiming they're good enough to do without the special effects: You have to see what Cronenberg shows in order to understand his movies. In this case, that means looking at umbilical cords jacked into human beings, grotesquely mutated amphibians gutted to provide game parts, an unsettling operation on a squirming game pod, a gun constructed of bone and gristle that shoots human teeth, not to mention the most crucial sight in his movies: the stunned, helpless characters who wander this disturbing world.

It's a sign of how thoroughly Cronenberg has changed the movie landscape--and me--that none of this comes off as shocking, save the movie's highlight: a revolting dinner of mutated frogs and salamanders that reveals a chillingly logical surprise. Fifteen years ago, the sexual fetishism of the bioports, which get repeatedly prodded with lubed-up fingers and tongues, would have wigged me out; now it seems like the most natural thing in the world. If this movie lacks shock and surprise, however, it still brilliantly sustains a conceit most directors wouldn't dare to touch: when Pikul finally gets around to playing eXistenZ, the game turns out to be a mediocre, cliché-ridden bore.

Inside the game world, even as their characters get jobs creating the game pods, he and Allegra wind up involved in a dimly perceived, labyrinthine conspiracy to destroy none other than virtual reality gaming itself. Here Cronenberg goes full-out in deliberate unoriginality. Even Allegra and Pikul, walking through the game, complain about flaws familiar to any viewer of bad movies: underwritten minor characters, broad accents, incomprehensible motivations.

It's here that the film clicks into place, and where--ironically, since these are among the movie's funniest scenes--eXistenZ opens up to include terror and tragedy. Since this tidbit won't give away a thing to anybody who's been paying attention, I confess that early in the film I thought Cronenberg had misstepped by making everything so clearly artificial. Nope. He was way ahead of me. One of Allegra's first statements is the sad observation that "people are programmed to accept so little, but the possibilities are so great."

It's a cheering thought, for some, that art can provide the kind of transcendent experience that alters a person's reality and opens him or her up to those possibilities. Movies, for example, can help people realize their dreams. Cronenberg, however, is not buying such easy optimism. Someone who is "programmed" to see evil and disease everywhere will see just that, regardless of how beautiful the view might be. You always come back to yourself. Sometimes that means returning to a very bad and dangerous place.

Next week; our big-ass, blowout interview with David Cronenberg.

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