In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.
It is important that we set parameters early for how bizarre this film is, so I’m going to start by telling you that within the first 15 minutes, one of the main characters gets shot by an organic gun that uses human teeth as projectiles. This happens to her as she is fondling a gadget that looks like nothing so much as a mass of tumorous nipples stitched together and made animate. And it just gets weirder.
This is the centerpiece of the entire movie
Before we really dive in, let’s stop and talk about why this is a world of toothguns and nipple masses. The overview of the film is that Allegra Geller, programming genius, is doing beta testing for her new game, eXistenZ. Technology in this world has invested all of its R&D in biorganic gadgets. Scientists use genetics to grow tech instead of building it in a traditional way. As such, sometimes guns are grown of bone and shoot teeth. Video games are played through game pods. Game pods start out as some type of frog, but are heavily bioengineered into what is in the picture above. The technology involved here goes beyond virtual reality, as the game pod connects directly to the player through a “bioport,” a hole drilled into the back of anyone who wants to use a game pod. It not only draws its running power from the player’s body but directly accesses their central nervous system to create such a realistic experience that it is indistinguishable from actual existence.
A group of fans has gathered together and are patiently waiting to “port” together and experience the game en masse. eXistenZ appears to be a standard sandbox game. There are general objectives and obstacles, and the player is expected to wander around figuring out what’s going on. The main difference is that the immersion is so complete that the player basically enters an alternate universe where NPC actions are scripted.
This abandonment of reality rubs some people the wrong way, which is why a terrorist uses a molar gun to attempt to assassinate the game designer. There’s a lot of commotion and death, but Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Ted Pikul (Jude Law) escape and go on the run. The attack damaged Allegra’s game pod, so they have to port into the game to run it and find out if eXistenZ will still work. They do so, but things get complicated when the story in the game mirrors what is happening in reality. In the game, there is an assassination plot and a toothgun. Ted and Allegra try to unravel the attempt on her life by progressing through the game world, but more worrisome than the murder attempt is that, when Ted unplugs from the game to take a break, reality no longer feels real.
This movie asks big, important questions. What is technology? Where is it going? How do we react to it, and how does it change us? Cronenberg’s modus operandi is to select a technology or science that exists or seems close to existing, then to exaggerate and extrapolate to explore its effects on humanity. He covers chemical-induced accidental mutation in Scanners and television broadcasts in Videodrome. In eXistenZ, it’s video games. As an avid gamer, it’s gratifying to see a movie dedicated entirely to the societal effects of one of my chosen pastimes. The movie sets up a plausible direction for video games and then shows its effects on individuals and society at large. Societally, there are people who escape into alternate realities as recreation and other people who murder the designers of those alternate realities on moral principle. On the individual level, people range from the squeamish and reluctant Ted Pikul, who does not even have a bioport installed until he has to enter eXistenZ because he is afraid of body modification, to Gas, played by Willem Dafoe, who is a manic-eyed devotee of Allegra Geller’s work. Dafoe has one of the best lines in the movie. The fleeing main pair stop at a gas station, and Dafoe’s character recognizes them and starts gushing about how Allegra’s games changed his life. Ted, who has yet to enter the world of total-immersion gaming, asks him how his life was different because of Allegra Geller. The response is priceless.
Ted: What was your life like before?
Ted: Before it was changed by Allegra Geller.
Gas: I operated a gas station.
Ted: You still operate a gas station, don’t you?
Gas: Only on the most pathetic level of reality.
Willem Dafoe’s line is so great because it sums up perfectly what video games do for those who play them (or really any media for those who read, watch, or listen to them): absolutely nothing. If you read a book, watch a movie, or play a video game, it changes absolutely nothing in your external life, but the external is just “the most pathetic level of reality.” The changes that happen within the consumer of media are what’s important – relaxation, an expanded consciousness, heightened emotion – it’s all fake, none of it’s real, but our ability to recognize, respond to, and create fake shit is the trait that makes us human, shared only, and even then only partially, by a handful of the higher animals (chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, etc).
Reality versus irreality ends up being the central conflict of the movie. After entering the perfect simulation of the game, it’s hard to tell what is and is not real. The “what if life is just like, a simulation, man?” conversation seems like an argument that would only be had over a table full of Taco Bell in a room full of pungent smoke, but it’s actually a very old and well-respected existential question. If we are living in an absolutely perfect simulation of reality, there is literally no way for us to tell. A truly perfect simulation would be indistinguishable from reality. Think about it – grab an object next to you and heft it in your hand. Toss it up and down a couple of times. Are you, through the messaging apparatus in your nerves, transferring chemical energy from your muscles to whatever you grabbed, or is a machine stimulating neurons in your unconscious brain to make you perceive all of the effects of that action?
I don’t care about the answer one way or the other, much as I don’t care about whether or not free will exists, because it changes nothing about my life and how I lead it. Right now, I am either choosing to drink bourbon and write this article, or I am predestined to drink bourbon and write this article. Either way, I’m tipsy and typing. In much the same way, a simulation that’s just as good as the real thing is, after all, just as good as the real thing. In the movie, it becomes more of a moral question, as they are actively dropping in and out of a simulation, and killing people in both the simulation and the real world means that it’s difficult to tell if you just shot a piece of code or a human being with a spouse and kids.
You should watch this. It’s one of those movies that Netflix tags “cerebral,” which mostly means that, even if it’s good, you’ll know at all times exactly how many minutes are left until the credits roll. Even if it moves kind of slow and gets kind of confusing, the future it envisions and the important questions it raises make it more than worthwhile. Right now, the closest thing we have to simulated reality is the Oculus Rift:
She looks so happy in there. Maybe she’s eating salad.
With current technological limitations, it’s pretty obvious what is and is not real, but humanity loves entertainment so much that it probably will not stop striving towards a perfect simulacrum of existence. Cronenberg explores what might happen if we make it there.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.
Images: Business Insider, IMDB