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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Alchemical Virtual Reality

eXistenZ is set in a timeframe uncannily close to the present in which virtual reality gamepods are in vogue. The opening scenes of the film begin with an introductory speech to a game testing. Allegra Geller, originally presented as the world’s leading game designer is shot by a ‘realist,’ or a reactionary to a world under the sway of simulacra. Ted Pikul acts as her bodyguard and they escape. Allegra needs to enter the game and so Ted hesitatingly gets a bioport (a hole in the spine that allows one to play) installed, conveniently at the country gas station. Pikul saves Allegra from being killed by Gas, the clerk, and they evade danger. Next they go to a ski lodge to repair Ted’s bioport and begin to play the game. After an intimate scene between Ted and Allegra the pair’s fun gaming experience takes a turn for the worse. Ted finds himself working an assembly line job in which his activity is reduced to the point of thoughtlessness. The scenes are marked by an intense oversaturation of abjectly visceral images of animals being slaughtered. The simulated world is even more bodily of an experience than the real world. At lunch Ted impulsively kills a Chinese waiter at the restaurant. As Ted and Allegra realize how consumption has become production in the world of the game, that their enjoyment is being harnessed for the reproduction of their oppression, they plan on destroying the rest of the pods by plugging into a diseased pod. This plan fails, Ted has to cut the cord, and Nourish, a worker and cook at the restaurant,  burns the diseased pod. The pod explodes releasing spores into the atmosphere and Ted and Allegra return to the ski lodge. At first they think they’ve returned to reality yet other game figures bleed into the picture and the distinction becomes unclear. The manager of the lodge, Vinokur, saves Allegra and Ted when they’re attacked by realists who are also characters from other games. In a twist of fates, Ted reveals that he was originally a double agent sent to kill Allegra, but she blows him up with a bomb she implanted in his bioport. In a final turn, we’re returned to the original scene of the movie, in which the audience realizes that eXistenZ was simply a game within the game tranCendenZ. Pikul and Allegra then kill the actual game designer and the film ends with the Chinese man asking if it's still a game.

eXistenZ is an horror movie in a rather unconventional sense. Trying to condense the film’s travels through levels of epistemological uncertainty will only pay testament to the absurdity eXistenZ points to at the heart of experience. At surface level, the film simply asks the age-old question: How do we know what we experience is real and not mere artifice? How do we know we are not just dreaming or a brain in a vat? Yet upon reflection eXistenZ strikes at the urge to ask that question in the first place. The film is a meta-commentary and reaction to the current status of cinema in a world of trans-media production. Steven Shaviro, in his new work Post-Cinematic Affect, writes, “The ontological basis of film seems to be under threat…Film theorists have begun to worry…that cinema has become an art of the past” (94). Rather than praise some primordial time when film was in its golden ages, filmmakers “hyperbolize the contemporary media landscape” and “make a movie that itself subsumes and reflects upon post-cinematic forms – computer games in particular” (94). So in one sense eXistenZ is a horror film to film itself. It exaggerates the notion that film has lost its monopoly over the forces of seduction. In another sense, however, the film is a mockery of ‘realists’ and the attempt to control or decide upon what is the ‘proper’ level of simulation. Equally though, the film is evidence of a sincere faith in film’s autonomy as an art form. eXistenZ’s ability to resist narrative closure or a stable interpretation creates a different relationship to the experience of the product itself. While in a game one has a completed landscape that the user can roam through, a film is always a determinate selection of images and montages. In the movie free will exists only to the extent that it’s interesting. A film likewise is only interesting if there is the free will of interpretive play. There is something frustratingly pleasurable about watching eXistenZ. There are so many instances in which the audience thinks they have figured out the levels of simulacra yet end up short. Trying to decipher it is like battling a seven-headed monster. Yet, this shows a reversal in roles in which the audience is being played by the film itself. The tables are turned in relation to The Matrix as well. In the Wachowski Brothers’ film the matrix is much larger, but its presence is more identifiable. In eXistenZ the game is relatively small, yet it’s nearly impossible to know when one is under its control. Furthermore, the fact that one desires rather than fears the simulation in eXistenZ is a frightful experience because one is more scared of desiring to be cheated than simply being cheated. The movie forces the audience to come to grips with the impulse that desires repression. As the audience watches the gamers get tricked they realize that the film has duped them as well. It is in the switch between eXistenZ and tranCendenZ that the audience becomes aware of the uncertainty in distinguishing between the two in the first place.

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