The critics - the cinema: Cronenberg unplugged

eXistenZ Director: David Cronenberg Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law (96 mins; 15)
When I'm confronted with a title like eXistenZ, I confess that my heart sinks and my eyes glaze. eXistenZ, I ask you! What sort of orthographic monstrosity is that? And what is it with science-fiction filmmakers? Why do they all appear to assume that, in the future, every other word is going to be spelt with an X or a Z, letters most of us regard at present as little more than esoteric marginalia in the hierarchy of alphabetical usage? And why, finally, does a genre which is supposed after all to unfetter the imagination tend to be so tightly corseted by all manner of codes and conventions?

These musings were prompted, I say, by the title of David Cronenberg's latest. They were, however, a touch premature. For, whatever else may be claimed for or against eXistenZ, it does represent something unheard- of in the modern cinema: a wholly unconventional science-fiction adventure.

"eXistenZ" is a virtual-reality game created by the evocatively surnamed Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It's a game, though, that dispenses with computers, screens, terminals and modems, none of which are visible in the movie - already a first for a futuristic whimsy. Nor does it have any rules. The players gain access to its alternative reality via a fleshy, umbilical-like cord (an "UmbyCord", according - or acCording - to the glossary which came with the movie's press kit) plugged into a "bioport", an anus-shaped orifice drilled through the spine. In consequence, the horrors they encounter once inside the game are generated not by any set of pre-programmed guidelines but by their own repressed phobias - even if, not surprisingly, these horrors bear a striking resemblance to the freakish mutations familiar to Cronenberg fans from Rabid, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, etc.

Unfortunately, during the official launch of "eXistenZ", a fanatical member of an anti-games "pro-realism" organisation, which has proclaimed a fatwa against Geller, attempts to assassinate her. (The word "fatwa" is Cronenberg's own, and the explicit analogy with the Rushdie affair is his, too. I'd be interested to learn what Rushdie, who was once interviewed by Cronenberg, thinks of that.) Rescued by one of her lowlier employees (Jude Law), she flees into the countryside - again unusually for the genre, this is a rural science-fiction movie - where, anxious to assess the damage inflicted on her creation during the kerfuffle at the launch, she persuades her shy saviour to play the game with her.

I'm in two minds about this movie. On the one hand, I'm sorely tempted to dismiss it as an insult to the intelligence. On the other hand, it's quite clearly a personal and, in its elusively idiosyncratic fashion, ambitious work by an authentic if overrated artist. So which is it? Farrago or film d'auteur? In fact, it's both, its problematically dual nature being reminiscent of one of those three-dimensional geometrical figures beloved of vulgarising mathematicians which, when looked at one way, strike the eye as concave and, when looked at the other way, as convex.

Thus, if one looks at eXistenZ one way, the fact that the game's world is, in its sinister drabness and dilapidation, indistinguishable from the movie's "real world" could be defended as a brilliant conceit which not only abolishes the frontier between fantasy and reality but allows Cronenberg to de-clichefy a hackneyed genre. But then, looking at it the other way, one can't help asking oneself why, given that the two worlds are mirror images of each other, anyone would bother to play the game at all.

Or, again, consider Cronenberg's cunning deployment of filmic metaphor and, in particular, the extraordinary shot of Law impudently sticking his tongue into Leigh's bioport. The latter's resemblance to an anus is, as I wrote above, unmistakable; even more outrageously, its location on Leigh's back is only a few inches from the real McCoy. If eXistenZ didn't have the excuse of being science-fiction, such a scene would be simply unimaginable, and it's by no means the only one of its kind in the movie. Throughout the narrative, there's a fair amount of pleasure to be procured from watching how niftily Cronenberg contrives to exploit the genre's more salacious metaphorical opportunities. But then, if the same scenes are looked at in another way, the idea that the sexual interaction of the two leads - both excellent, as it happens - operates exclusively on the level of metaphor means that we're denied the basic romantic chemistry we surely have a right to expect between so personable an actor and actress.

Or take eXistenZ's efforts to compete with the narrative strategies of certain classic CD-Roms - Myst, for example. These are, for the most part, so plodding one can't help wondering whether the movies should even be endeavouring to keep up with the latest and most vertiginous electronic technologies. I was reminded at moments of the Italian Futurist painters Balla and Severini, whose canvases strained laboriously to capture the essence of movement and speed at a period when the cinema itself was already doing the job so much better.

eXistenZ, then, is that rarity, a movie which works infinitely more effectively on the subtextual level than on the textual. As a compendium of its director's recurrent fetishes and obsessions, it cannot be faulted; but as a story well and enjoyably told, it's a non-starter, just too silly and flimsy to support the weight of its heavy thematic cargo. That little bioport is, I fear, what you might call a sphincter without a secret.