MacLean´s, April 26, 1999, p.62-63

Virtual director

David Cronenberg returns to his science-fiction roots

David Cronenberg

Something weird is going on with David Cronenberg. But not in the usual sense. Canadian cinema´s favorite iconoclast - the director of Crash, Dead Ringers and The Fly - is about the last person you would expect to see standing on the pitcher´s mound at the SkyDome. But last week there he was, a baseball jersey draped over his lean frame, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of the Blue Jays´ home-opener. He took his time. Staring down the catcher, he went through the motions of a classic windup, only to bounce the ball in the dirt. It was outside, way outside. A mutant pitch. Cronenberg, an avid baseball fan, grimaced then offered a sheepish grin as he retired from the mound.

What Cronenberg was really pitching was his new movie, Existenz, a science-fiction adventure about a game of virtual reality. The Toronto director, whose work has consistently curved away from the mainstream, can hardly be accused of playing to the crowd. But the hype behind Existenz - an independent film with a high-end budget of $30 million - is clearly aimed beyond Cronenberg´s hardcore fans. Meanwhile, he is suddenly getting some big-league attention, and not just from the Blue Jays. Next month, he will hold court at the pinnacle of the world´s glitziest movie event next to the Oscars, as the jury president at the Cannes Film Festival - a post recently filled by such legendary directors as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. When the festival phoned him with the offer, says Cronenberg, "I just about fell over. I suppose I still feel like a kid. When I first went to Cannes [in 1970], I was a kid, trying to set up a market screening of Crimes of the Future. I was so far away from the real festival, and I guess I still have that feeling. I could be one of the kids on the jury, but the papa, the president, has got to be somebody else. Well, I guess I have to accept that I´m 56 now."

Cronenberg´s 13th film, Existenz marks a watershed for the director. It is a homecoming of sorts, a return to a science-fiction genre that he has not visited since Videodrome (1982). It is also his first original screenplay since then - Dead Ringers, M. Butterfly, Naked Lunch and Crash were all adaptations. And after the forbidding brilliance of Crash (1996), with its freaky vision of strangers getting sexually aroused by car wrecks, it seems strangely comforting to see Cronenberg back at his old tricks, trafficking in mutant creatures, fleshy gizmos and invented orifices. Offering up a virtual theme park of Cronenbergian schtick, Existenz is the most playful, overtly comic and wryly self-referential work of his career. It lacks the chilling intensity of his most powerful films - nothing to match the death rattle of Dead Ringers or the soulless ennui of Crash. But Existenz shows the director loosening up and having some fun. It is, after all, about games.

Coincidentally, it is being released in the slipstream of another virtual-reality romp, The Matrix, which so far is the year´s biggest box-office hit, grossing more than $100 million in just two weeks. The two films are wildly different. The Matrix is a special-effects extravaganza - Blade Runner, Terminator 2 and Star Wars tossed into a martial-arts Cuisinart. By contrast, Existenz is relatively quiet and cerebral, despite the visceral effects (and despite the strobe-pulsing trailers that try to sell it as the thrill ride of the century).

The Matrix imagines a future where the artificial intelligence has taken over the world. Machines feed off the bio-energy of humans, who are kept in a Soma-like sleep, plugged into a computer-generated dream world in which life goes on as before. Keanu Reeves, upgrading his Mnemonic Buddha routine, stars as the designated saviour, a terminator recruited by underground guerillas who conduct raids on the "matrix" of virtual reality, patching in and out by phone and keyboard. Smart and stupid at the same time, The Matrix is an irresistible, idiotic blast. It basically rewires the Orwellian morality tale - of humanists heroically fighting to defend the "real" world against a totalitarian illusion.

In Cronenberg´s film, it is hard to tell which is which. Existenz is a virtual-reality flick that questions the virtue of reality. It imagines a world where game systems are plugged directly into the body through a "bioport," a navel-like orifice punched in the base of the spine. An umbilical cord connects the player to a pink "meta-flesh game pod," which looks like a squishy hybrid of various human organs, with nipple-like controls.

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Allegra Geller, a celebrity game designer whose latest prototype, Existenz, draws on the player´s own nervous system to create an alternate reality. "You don´t play the game," she says. "It plays you." As Allegra is about to preview her baby for a group of test subjects, an infiltrator tries to assassinate her with a "gristle gun," a pistol made of bone that shoots human teeth. She is whisked away by Ted (Jude Law), a naive security guard. And together they embark on a byzantine odyssey that shifts, Slinky-like, between reality and dream. As the game goddess, Jason Leigh exudes a sexy, narcotic sense of control, with Law, the game virgin, serving as her skittish initiate.

Cronenberg has created a game world of transparent fakery, full of wriggling silicone and deliberately bad accents. A long-haired Don McKellar plays a Russian double agent who works at a "trout farm" breeding mutant amphibians that are gutted on a creaky assembly line and wrapped in brown paper. As a Hungarian surgeon, Ian Holm dissects the bloody entrails of diseased game pods on the workbench of an abandoned ski shop. Willem Dafoe has a witty turn as a gas-station attendant who does backroom bioport insertions with a "stud gun," a big greasy thing that looks as if could take off a set of tires in a twinkling.

The movie amounts to a funhouse essay in existentialism. The game landscape, reminiscent of Naked Lunch´s Interzone, is a metaphysical casbah of spies and terrorists, where fanatics shout "Death to realism!" and the weapon of choice (the gristle gun) lurks in the daily special. In such an archly contrived world, actually suspending disbelief is not easy, especially towards the end as dream and reality spin into a kind of postmodern centrifuge. But in Cronenberg´s work, metaphor - and meta-flesh - is always more urgent than narrative. The image is the event, the image of technology made flesh. What is unusual about Existenz is that, despite the icky effects, it is more diverting than disturbing: Cronenberg-lite.

The movie, however, was not a conscious attempt to lighten up, according to the director. "It wasn´t any kind of reaction to Crash," he says. "At a certain point, I had both of these scripts written and ready to go and I thought Existenz would be made first." Wrapped in an overcoat, Cronenberg is conducting interviews in a deserted Toronto jazz club. Nearby is a basket of silicone game pods. Eerily lifelike to the touch, they are the last in a series of fetish-like props that the director has invented, from the gynecological torture instruments of Dead Ringers to the typewriter creatures of Naked Lunch. "I guess I have this pool of imagery and metaphor that I´m always drawing from," he says. "But there´s a weird, false naiveté that you have to have when you´re writing. If I worried about how my themes in this movie connected with my other themes, I wouldn´t get the first word down."

The Existenz story of a game designer being the target of a fatwa was inspired by an interview that Cronenberg did with author Salman Rushdie for Shift magazine in 1995. "I was horrified and intrigued by his situation, and the whole Burroughsian idea that if you create something it can come back to haunt you," says the director. He and Rushdie ended up talking about computer games. "Perhaps they´re an emerging art form," he suggests. "Just as the Industrial Revolution gave birth to cinema, the new computer technology will inevitably give rise to another art form or two. Could a game be art, in more than the graphic sense? I think we agreed that it couldn´t, in the same way you can´t think of chess as art. That´s based on our concept of the artist as someone who has a vision and is taking the audience someplace they couldn´t go by themselves. But maybe there´s a radical new democratic form of art. I wouldn´t be against it. I´d be interested."

Cronenberg himself is not a game addict. "I´ve played a couple of games, and my [19-year-old] son is a rabid player - he has about five different game systems. But I just don´t have 10 or 12 hours to get through all the different levels. I´d rather read a book." In Existenz, however, the games industry also serves as satirical metaphor for the movie industry, with references to pre-release budgets and test previews. When Allegra declares that "the world of games is in a kind of trance - people are programmed to accept so little, but the possibilities are so great," the allusion is obvious. "I am talking about cinema," says Cronenberg. "I do believe that´s true."

Cronenberg´s cinema is an acquired taste, one that defies the dramatic conventions of how an audience should be transported. And although Existenz is one of his most user-friendly movies in years, it is still hard to get a grip on characters who keep flipping from one artificial world to another. "There really isn´t a naturalistic way to play them," the director concedes. No matter how hard you try, he says, "you can´t have realism in film. It immediately becomes its own artifice with its own rules and its own transgressions. It´s not reality. But what is?" Then, with the authority of a pitching ace defining the strike zone, he adds: "It´s all virtual reality. There is no other kind."