eXistenZ 4K Blu-ray Review

Written by Robert Gold

Blu-ray released by Vinegar Syndrome

Written and directed by David Cronenberg
1999, 97 minutes, Rated R
Released on January 30th, 2024

Starring:
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Allegra Geller
Jude Law as Ted Pikul
Ian Holm as Kiri Vinokur
Willem Dafoe as Gas
Don McKeller as Yevgeny Nourish
Callum Keith Rennie as Hugo Carlaw
Sarah Polley as Merle
Christopher Eccleston as Seminal Leader

Review:

Following a failed assassination attempt, Game designer Allegra Geller, accompanied by corporate team member Ted Pikul are on the run for their lives. A gunman tried to kill her during a demo of her new virtual reality game eXistenZ. There is no obvious safe space, but Allegra has another pressing emergency: her meta-flesh control pod has been damaged and she needs to see if the only copy of her new game is still functioning. To play, an organic cable is plugged into a piercing in your lower spine, known as a bio-port and the virtual reality takes over. The program is so realistic, it is difficult to tell when you are playing or living in waking life. Allegra and Ted cross paths with several questionable characters and face numerous deadly encounters in an effort to learn who is trying to kill her.

Written and directed by David Cronenberg (The Fly, The Dead Zone), the master of body horror, eXistenZ is a darkly disturbing tale for the gaming community. This picture moves more briskly than some of the director’s other works, as there is a sense of urgency in the pursuit of our heroine. Cronenberg continues to create truly stunning images found nowhere else in cinema. For example, the movie opens with an assassin firing a most unique weapon: an organic gun made of bones and gristle that fires human teeth! An interesting thing happens when you speak to a game character in a way that strays from the pre-programmed script – they fall into a sort of frozen loop unable to continue until you return to the appropriate prompts. There are plenty of other creative flourishes, including two-headed lizards and a proto smartphone, as the director builds an entire world for the game experience. As they say in the film, “You have to play the game to find out why you are playing the game.”

Cronenberg attracts top talent in all of his films, as is the case here. The always-wonderful Jennifer Jason Leigh (Single White Female) stars as Allegra Geller, the driven game designer. She is passionate and resourceful and almost always in control of the situation – until she is not. She relies on Ted Pikul for her physical safety, played by Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley). As a non-gamer, Ted is the straight man, a stranger in a strange land. Law and Leigh play well off each other and share great on-screen chemistry. Supporting roles are filled with familiar faces, including the great Willem DaFoe (The Lighthouse) as a gas station attendant named Gas. Ian Holm (Mary Shelly's FrankensteinAlien) plays Kiri Vinokur, a talented man capable of repairing a damaged game pod, and Sarah Polley (Dawn of the Dead, 2004) shows up in a truly surprising role I won’t spoil here. Just about everyone in the game has an ulterior motive, so it is difficult to tell whom to trust.

eXistenZ carries the same uncomfortable eroticism found in other Cronenberg titles, including Dead Ringers and Crash. Penetration is the key to accessing the game, via a hole in the base of your spine that must be licked or lubricated before inserting the umbilical-like cable. The director is a master at creating intimacy with his characters without being overtly sexual. He has a lot to say about the human condition and the advances in technology as a potential threat. Inspired in part by the plight of author Salman Rushdie, Allegra’s life is threatened for her artistic expression.

Twenty-five years after its theatrical release, the film should appeal to a broader market, as the gaming industry has exploded and become less exotic. Cronenberg, now 81, continues to generate thoughtful, imaginative works with titles including Crimes of the Future and Shrouds and shows no signs of slowing or mellowing. Not everything works in eXistenZ, but I was never bored and had no idea where it was going. I can easily recommend this title to Cronenberg devotees, while newcomers may want to catch it streaming before committing to a purchase.

Video and Audio:

The film’s original interpositive has received a 4K restoration with the image presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio with High-Dynamic-Range and the results are stunning. Colors are well-saturated and frequently pop, while black levels are bottomless. There is an incredible amount of detail, as picture quality is razor sharp with a fine layer of grain.

Both a DTS-HD MA 5.1 and DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo are highly effective, with the former edging ahead in terms of immersion. Rear channels get a workout and music cues are prominent throughout. Dialogue levels are always clear and understandable, while sound effects are powerful, particularly gunshots. Optional English subtitles are included for in need.

Special Features:

There are four audio commentaries on this release, including one newly recorded by film historian Dr. Jennifer Moorman. This track covers a lot of ground discussing this movie’s themes and concepts and also its cast and director.

David Cronenberg’s commentaries are always fascinating and this one is no exception. He reveals how the project came together, shares his thoughts on the film’s themes and message and provides insight into creating a new world. He has kind words for his cast and crew and views the experience as largely positive.

Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (The Empire Strikes Back) pulls back the curtain on the creation of the world of eXistenZ and his use of lighting to discern between real life and the gaming experience. He tells how certain shots were accomplished and talks about his experiences working with Cronenberg.

Visual effects supervisor Jim Isaac (Jason X) details how the film’s non-practical gags were achieved and the use of CGI. This is likely the most technical commentary track, but Isaac is a great storyteller and keeps things interesting.

Crafting (un)Reality (22 minutes) is a newly-conducted interview with art director Tamara Deverell on building the worlds of eXistenZ. She shares her memories of working with production designer Carol Spier, the use of visual effects, the high standards of the work and filming in practical locations versus on sets.

In Frankenstein Syndrome (9 minutes), make-up effects artist Stephan Dupuis discusses bringing eXistenZ to life. He talks about his early work that led him to the opportunity to create for Cronenberg and details how specific special effects were created.

Producer Robert Lantos sits for the recent interview segment Sticking with Genius (10 minutes), and reflects on meeting Cronenberg and working together. He talks about the director’s vision and style. He also talks about the transition from Alliance Pictures to Serendipity.

The new segment The Art of the Title (7 minutes) is an interview with opening title designer Robert Pilichowski, in which we learn about the standout title era and his use of colors, design and textures.

Frame by Frame: The Invisible Art of Production Designer Carol Spier (48 minutes) is an archival featurette that focuses on the set design, location scouting and working with models. There are interviews with various crew members who discuss, among other things, shooting in a warehouse rather than traditional studio space.

In the archival promotional featurette (11 minutes) cast and crew members, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Don McKellar, David Cronenberg and producer Robert Lantos are interviewed and share their thoughts on the production.

An archival special effects featurette (4 minutes) featuring visual effects artist Jim Isaac and David Cronenberg allows the filmmakers to discuss the design process, challenges to create seamless moments, the use of CGI enhancement, the numerous practical f/x. Other topics include the gristle gun, the two-headed mutant challenge and the player pods.

A photo gallery (3 minutes) filled with production stills and publicity shots plays as a slideshow.

The original theatrical trailer is also included.

There is also a collection of archival EPK interviews featuring director David Cronenberg (4 minutes), actor Jude Law (15 minutes), actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (2 minutes), actor Willem Dafoe (7 minutes) and visual effects supervisor Jim Isaac (28 minutes). Everybody has positive things to say about their time working on this picture.

Grades:

Movie: Cover
Video:
Audio:
Features:
Overall: 4.5 Star Rating

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Robert Gold
Staff Reviewer
Robert's favorite genres include horror (foreign and domestic), Asian cinema and pornography (foreign and domestic). His ability to seek out and enjoy shot on video (SOV) horror movies is unmatched. His love of films with a budget under $100,000 is unapologetic.
Other articles by this writer

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