A Game Everybody’s Already Playing

eXistenZ (1999)

illustration by Moses Lee

To be human is to walk around with a hole inside of you. To seek ways to fill that hole. To look around you and to imagine that, perhaps, you aren’t really here. To suddenly feel disconnected from the people around you, the objects around you, your own home. To wonder, what if we are living in a simulation? To pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming. To see somebody’s face and feel you’ve seen that face before. To be scared of the idea that you’ve seen that face before. Then: to want it.

One of those faces, in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, is less of a face and more of an internal organ. The MetaFlesh Game Pod, which game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) presents early on in the film as the vessel for a new kind of immersive virtual reality gaming system, appears to be a sort of mash-up between a twisted female torso, a baby pig, and a deformed jellyfish with nipples. They are familiar in their sentient fleshiness, seemingly constructed like a human body part, but they are undeniably not of us. The pods connect to their users via an umbilical cord-like connector (called, of course, the UmbyCord) that plugs into the game player’s “bio-port”—an open hole in their spine—tapping directly into their nervous system. Compatible with us, even symbiotic, but not us. Once in the game, the players look like themselves and think like themselves, but sometimes talk and act unlike themselves. In the game ( “eXistenZ”), the boundaries of your identity are porous. You are both self and other.  

Freud called this feeling—of experiencing something that seems simultaneously so intimate and yet so foreign—the uncanny, or “unheimlich” in German. In his view, the sensation we call the uncanny comes not from an abnormal or unwelcome experience, but rather from the return of something within us that we have (unsuccessfully) repressed: “the ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” The meaning of the word unheimlich (un-home-ly), in German, thus eventually converges with the meaning of heimlich (home-ly). This all becomes a little less confusing once you realize that “home-ly,” here, stands not just for something that feels comfortable and welcoming because it’s in your home—but also for something that might be in your home because you want to keep it private, secret. What is uncanny, then, is both unfamiliar and familiar. To quote Freud again, this time quoting a passage from the playwright Karl Gutzkow, it is: 

‘like a buried spring or a dried-up pond. One cannot walk over it without always having the feeling that water might come up there again.’ ‘Oh, we call it “unheimlich”; you call it “heimlich.”’

One cannot walk over it without always having the feeling that water might come up there again. This image of the buried spring captures the experience of watching a David Cronenberg film. Tread lightly; you never know when the soil might begin to well up, to ooze around your heels. Wear boots that can get mud on them; the terrain ahead promises to feel both privately internal and universally forsaken.

*

Much like The Matrix, released only a few weeks prior in the spring of 1999, eXistenZ plays most obviously with the question of whether we really inhabit the reality we think we inhabit. Where The Matrix posits systemic and structural forces keeping their subjects in the dark, however, eXistenZ shows us a more realistic version of our potential subjection to simulated reality. In Cronenberg’s view, we will design this simulated world ourselves, and we’ll sell it to each other under the guise of an exciting new advancement in tech and entertainment. In the 25 years since its release, we have only slipped closer as a culture to the sort of escape-through-technology that (most of) Cronenberg’s characters embrace.

eXistenZ opens in a world that we only later discover to be a simulation occurring inside of a virtual reality game (we think?). In this opening reality, Allegra Geller is a star game designer, testing out her newest game, eXistenZ, on a special group of chosen gamers. During the test, a would-be assassin—part of an underground movement of ‘Realists’ resisting the way tech companies have “deformed” reality—attempts to take her life. She ends up on the run with a man named Ted Pikul (Jude Law), whom she believes to be her security guard but who is actually a PR trainee (or, potentially, yet another underground Realist resistance fighter pretending to be on her side in order to get close enough to kill her). Geller tells Pikul that the only way to ensure that her master game pod hasn’t been infected in the attack is for the two of them to play eXistenZ together, so they port into the game, entering an altered version of reality in which they assume new identities. Later, however, Pikul begins to become suspicious of his original reality: “I’m feeling a little disconnected from my real life.” Eventually, after he unmasks himself as a Realist agent, and Geller kills him by blowing up a device she’s plugged into his back and told him was a type of tech-based sporicide, Allegra and Ted are both revealed to be players testing out a virtual reality game called transCendenZ. This twist explains the everything-is-slightly-off nature of the previous 90 minutes of the film, as well as the fact that the country gas station they travel to at one point is labeled, in bold capital letters on the side of the building, COUNTRY GAS STATION. In a final twist, both Geller and Pikul turn out to be Realist moles, and shoot and kill Yevgeny Nourish (Don McKellar), the designer of transCendenZ, and his assistant, Merle (Sarah Polley).

Are you lost yet? Are you questioning the nature of your own reality? Or, better yet, while you were attempting to sort through the confusion of that plot summary paragraph, did you find yourself checking out and reaching for your phone to look at your latest Instagram notification? A video someone sent you on TikTok?

There’s much to say about the way eXistenZ bends reality and plays with our expectations of how people should act, how society should work, how buildings should look. Roger Ebert, in a three-star review, summed up the general feeling of the mise en scène perfectly: “[Cronenberg] places his characters in a backwoods world that looks like it was ordered over the phone from L.L. Bean. Then he frames them with visuals where half the screen is a flat foreground that seems to push them toward us, while the other half is a diagonal sliding off alarmingly into the background.” (This kind of description is why Ebert was, and always will be, simply the best.) That the film’s last line (spoiler!) is the unanswered question “Are we still in the game?” tells you perhaps everything you need to know about the way a sort of heavy realism-uncertainty hangs over every scene in eXistenZ. But what I find even more fascinating than the question of whether or not these characters are operating in a game world is the uncanny nature of Cronenberg’s imagined escapist system. 

*

The moment the first organic MetaFlesh Game Pod appears on screen, you can’t help but be simultaneously intrigued and repulsed. Early in the film, Pikul nervously asks Allegra how it’s possible that bio-ports aren’t constantly infected, since they, you know, “open right into your body.” “Don’t be ludicrous,” an amused Allegra responds, opening her mouth wide and sticking her tongue out; look at this hole, she seems to say of her throat. Bodies are open to the outside world all the time.

Cronenberg’s interest in the porousness of body and mind pulses through the film; the reality is, of course, that infections run rampant in eXistenZ, and that infection can seemingly come from anywhere. A disease introduced in one world can metastasize into the next, and a metaphorical rot—one borne in the mind—can become literal, a mass of black spores and discolored flesh. In all the planes of existence Allegra inhabits, her master game pod is constantly either suffering from infection or threatened by infection. At one point, watching the twitching mass of nerves and muscle and tendons writhe and moan on the bed, Allegra panics: “We brought the disease back with us. My pod is diseased. Oh god!” 

As she injects the pod with sporicide and attempts to massage it back to health, I couldn’t help but think of the sick baby in David Lynch’s Eraserhead, another uncanny harbinger of the futile and impossible human attempt to exist as a discrete entity, not needing to connect to anything else for survival. The baby metaphor isn’t subtle, either; the umbilical cord going from person to pod is so accurately realized that I don’t know if you could call it anything else, and when Ted has his first bio-port installed by a deranged gas station owner named, of course, Gas (Willem Dafoe, who else), he learns that the gun used to punch a hole in his back comes pre-loaded with an epidural. “Just like when you have a baby,” Gas explains, in case you weren’t sure you were interpreting things correctly. There are no young children anywhere in the world of eXistenZ, no family units, no images of adults caring for spouses or kids. In this world, one cares only for the game pods—the new children—the mewing, gelatinous, somewhat sentient possessions that you must nurture to the exclusion of all others.

Of course, there seems to be no way to navigate this world without ending up entangled with some other living being, whether or not that entity is human. There seems, also, to be no way to ensure that the people around you are trustworthy and friendly, or will receive you into their homes (their heimlich homes) and their restaurants and their gas stations and their hearts the way you want them to. (They might, instead, lift a gun to your head—an organic gun, one fashioned to escape traditional metal detection. A gun that bleeds. An uncanny weapon, familiar in shape but not in form.) And yet without them, you’re stuck: a nobody without agency or forward motion. A poorly-drawn character stuck in a game loop.

According to Allegra, after all, the only way to test out the health of eXistenZ is to play it with someone—someone “friendly.” Even in this version of complete dissociation from the external world, the ‘real’ body, it is impossible to operate without emotional connection. And the emotional connection doesn’t just extend to the player who’s working alongside you in the game—it’s also, clearly, one that exists between the player and their pod, this device that is so viscerally welded to the body, the mind, the soul. (It’s “basically an animal,” we are told at one point.) 

Watching eXistenZ, I can’t help but be envious of this dystopia. Our corporate overlords—our Antenna Researches and Cortical Systematics—would never let tech be this fleshy, this sexy, this corporeal. Apple and Google and Meta depend on tricking people into thinking that tech is clean, safe, separate, hard, impenetrable. An iPhone is comforting when you can trick yourself into believing it’s not a threat to your being or your mind—that it’s merely an expensive object crafted out of lithium batteries and glass and plastic and metal—that it’s not worming its way into your nervous system, altering your gray matter, changing the way you access and tap into the phenomena around you. Cronenberg’s vision of the futuristic technical dystopia seems more honest in its base, embodied id-ness, and thus more desirable. If I’m going to get brain rot and feel permanently detached from my understanding of my own body, I’d rather be turned on while I’m doing that, right? Turned on and, perhaps, plotting a violent revenge.

* 

Freud again: Concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know about it, withheld from others, cf. Geheim [secret] … To do something heimlich, i.e. behind someone’s back; to steal away heimlich; heimlich meetings and appointments … to behave heimlich, as though there was something to conceal; heimlich love, love-affair, sin; heimlich places (which good manners oblige us to conceal).

*

The game eXistenZ is fashioned out of heimlich places—is stitched together in an unheimlich way. It pulls from your private desires and memories and fears; it throws images up into your cerebral cortex that you could never have invented on your own—images that feel strange, aberrant—but that you also seem to recognize as though from a dream. The people in this virtual world, too, feel both approachable and impenetrable. They smile but they glitch, they hug but they repeat themselves. They are open books, yet harbor withheld information; it never seems clear whether a character is on your side or only pretending to be so in order to undermine your efforts. Everything in the game—the biological nature of the game “equipment”; the way characters walk; the too-flat, drawn-on nature of the sets; the way you are both yourself and another character who is you and not-you; the encouraged mutation of amphibians—acts as a reminder that the players are navigating a world both familiar and unfamiliar, a world where things that may have been repressed in reality begin to bubble up out of the depths and rupture the boundary.

This becomes perhaps most clear almost exactly halfway through the film. Allegra and Ted are inside eXistenZ at the “Ski Club,” which is actually a warehouse for game pod manufacture and repair. (If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the film, then, yes, the Ski Club eventually also seems to become the Trout Farm, another uncanny blurring of orientation—it is impossible, in this game, to firmly locate yourself in space. You must always, instead, haunt an ambiguously liminal zone.) They’ve just been directed to port into the game’s “micro-pods,” miniature versions of the MetaFlesh Game Pods that, rather than hooking up to you via umbilical cord, actually insert themselves entirely inside your body, presumably assimilating themselves into your nervous system. Their “new identities,” they’ve been told, will follow. As they wait, the two of them become irresistibly physically drawn to each other; Ted gently puts his tongue inside Allegra’s bio-port, a gesture that really shouldn’t be as sensual as it is. The erotic mess of this scene—two people touching each other in a context that should forbid such touch—pushes us, as viewers, towards one of Cronenberg’s central questions: Why do we still—in this fucked-up world that seems to be asking us at every turn to dislocate ourselves from our environments, our desires, our needs, and our dreams—find ourselves craving and sneaking moments of human connection?

In one reading of the film, Allegra and Ted are involved with each other in real life, making this scene merely a moment of, as Allegra calls it, “reality bleed-through”: the repressed (because real/Real[ists]) rising up out of the dry soil and rearing its unheimlich head. In another reading, this desire represents the natural outcome of suppressed violent feelings towards someone who stands for everything you hate: the undercover Realist revolutionary who is unable to kill the infamous game designer at this point in the game and so is fucking her instead (though the act never seems to be consummated; Ted is transported at a moment of bliss to the Trout Farm conveyor belt, Allegra’s breast replaced by a mutated frog). Similar catharsis, different means. Either way, Cronenberg is playing with the way that our sexual desires may actually offer us an option that doesn’t end in fire or spores or execution—an escape from dissociative dystopia through physical intimacy.

And eXistenZ could easily be dismissed as a confused and disjointed mess, more interested in baffling than in cohering, were it not for the relationship between Allegra and Ted. Their chemistry exists across realities, inside and outside game pods. You follow them, even as their surroundings melt, deform, and warp, because the two of them carry something real between them that transcends (transCendZ?) virtuality. They swim in an erotics of identity crisis, hot for each other because each is trying, desperately, to locate both their inner self and their physical body in a world that says you don’t need either one to win. Could I find myself in you? Could you find yourself in me? Is that my tooth in your shoulder? Can you taste my spine? Are you friendly? Will you play this game with me? What would it mean if we stood up together and refused to let a corporation hijack our minds for profit? 

This is a movie about touch in a world where “nobody actually physically skis any more,” a movie about seeking a true partner in a realm where you often feel like your communication is restricted to short words and phrases that others are programmed to respond to. Watching Allegra and Ted try to craft their replies and prompts to others in the game in a way that will elicit a response, I couldn’t help but think about my own fraught navigation of social and familial dynamics; it is uncanny to try to communicate with others, knowing they are often waiting for us to say something that could “advance their plots.” You have to tell your boss what you think they want to hear, your kids what you know they need to hear, your friends what you suspect they hope to hear. Cronenberg makes it clear that the game of eXistenZ (and the film, too) consciously apes real-world social/capitalist/corporate dynamics. Ted, anxious, blurts out: “I don’t like it here. I don’t know what’s going on. We’re both stumbling around together in this unformed world whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don’t understand.” And, cool as a(n unmutated) cucumber, Allegra responds: “It’s a game everybody’s already playing.”

Because it is, of course. Even more so today than it was 25 years ago.

*

Prescient as the film is, it’s also perhaps, in a strange way, overly optimistic. It asks many of the same questions we’re asking now as we look at the landscape of the future of tech—virtual reality, generative AI, all these “tools” we’re being told can “augment” our experiences in work, in life, so that we can have more time for what “really matters” (buying more tech? scrolling endlessly, endlessly?)—especially this question: If everything is reproducible and also mutated and fucked up, what about reality actually matters?

What matters in eXistenZ, it seems, is still the pursuit of human connection, whether out of true love or revolutionary fervor (or both). What matters is the process of continually trying to undermine the system, to break it open from its beating inner heart, to set it on fire, to destroy the church and the corporation, even if you’re not really inside of them, even if you’re not really you, even if you’re not really there. What matters is noticing the water well up underneath your feet and refusing to repress it because you understand that what recurs and insists on being seen must be embraced. What matters is the caress, the eye contact, the flesh on real flesh (not MetaFlesh). I want this to be true of our contemporary society. But sometimes when I look around, I have trouble identifying the person who could still stand up and yell: “Death to PilgrImage! Death to transCendenZ!