Dimension Films // 1999 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Sean Fitzgibbons (Retired) // October 26th, 1999
Where does reality stop...and the game begin?
Buena Vista, surprisingly, takes another stab at anamorphic DVD with their release of David Cronenberg's sci-fi thriller eXistenZ. However, an anamorphic transfer is not quite enough for Buena Vista to create a worthwhile DVD release.
David Cronenberg is a director who can create a film I really love, or pervert a film enough to really turn me off -- and trust me, that is no small task. While I truly adore Cronenberg's work in the 1980s (including Scanners, The Dead Zone, and The Fly) I have not since been able to truly enjoy one of his films. Most recently was the highly perverse, and controversial, Crash which explored the lives of individuals who received erotic pleasure out of witnessing, and making love to, car crash victims. Therefore, earlier this year, I was in no mood to race out and see eXistenZ, which is rather unfortunate.
Opening a few weeks after The Matrix, eXistenZ suffered a quick death at the box office due to its close relation (in concept) to the runaway hit. Cronenberg sets a relatively slow pace for his sci-fi thriller which begins inside a church. A group of individuals, in the near future, have been assembled to test a new virtual reality game called, you guessed it, eXistenZ. Cronenberg uses his originality to craft how the VR experience is created. Organic machines, called "pods," run the games which are fed into the human mind by way of a chord which inserts directly into a hole at the base of the user's spine -- called a "bioport." From there, the signal is sent through the spinal chord and into the brain, creating a completely alternate reality by manipulating the mind and nerves, much like The Matrix. The test group designated to play the game is graced by a special guest, the game's creator Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to play the game with. As Allegra begins to download the game into the pods of those in the test group, a member of the audience watching the test group walks on stage and attempts to assassinate Allegra. Allegra eludes the assassin's "bullets" (actually teeth -- trust me, it's cool) and soon finds Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a security guard, who helps her escape.
Allegra comes to the conclusion that Antenna, the game company she designed eXistenZ for, is attempting to steal her new creation. Unfortunately, during the assassination attempt, Allegra's pod, which contains the only copy of eXistenZ, was damaged. In order to save her game, Allegra convinces Pikul to play with her and see exactly what damage was done to eXistenZ. Both in and out of eXistenZ, Pikul and Allegra continually encounter deadly assassins intent on killing them both, with a sinister conspiracy looming over their every move.
Eventually the slow pace of the film is shattered and quickly moves through a surprising finish. David S. Goyer said it best on the Blade DVD when he stated that audiences will forgive a lot in a film if that film has a good ending. Undoubtedly, this was proven true last summer with the sleeper hit The Sixth Sense. Cronenberg's eXistenZ predates The Sixth Sense but has a similarly surprising finale that truly redeems the audience for enduring an otherwise mediocre film. I cannot deny that I enjoy these well crafted endings and, in light of this, eXistenZ is spared from my wrath and becomes another great science fiction film released this year.
I've never been a fan of anything Shakespearean so I missed Buena Vista's release of Shakespeare in Love. Therefore, eXistenZ was my first encounter with Buena Vista and anamorphic widescreen. eXistenZ has quietly slipped by as Buena Vista's second anamorphic transfer, which is unfortunate. It stands to reason that if Buena Vista can deliver solid, if not exceptional, non-anamorphic releases then their anamorphic attempts will be quite good as well. I cannot speak for Shakespeare in Love, however eXistenZ's 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks stellar on anamorphic displays. The anamorphic transfer adds a great amount of detail to the film and Buena Vista should seriously continue to follow along this path. Black levels and flesh tones are dead-on and the transfer holds together many of the organic color themes in the film very nicely.
Buena Vista seems to be having quite a few issues with their DVD packing recently. Do not expect a Dolby Surround track on eXistenZ, as labeled on the box, but intend to hear the film in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound! This time around packing errors do not work against the DVD consumer, thankfully. The 5.1 track captures the essence of the film perfectly -- quiet and subdued one minute, then roaringly loud when gun fire and explosions go off the next. Many of the sounds that emanate from the 5.1 track during the film are quite unique and probably something you've never heard before (especially a tooth bullet penetrating human skin) which made me do a double take once or twice.
There's no question this time that Buena Vista has released an exceptional DVD transfer, but what about extra content? Well, it's good to know that Buena Vista has not yet given up on their regular added features -- one theatrical trailer and film recommendations. After perusing these additional features I could hardly believe all the insights I gained into eXistenZ.
Yes, I do believe I was exaggerating a bit about the extra content on this disc. If a theatrical trailer and (worthless) film recommendations are all Buena Vista intends to add to their DVD releases, they might as well not bother. What DVD consumers want are featurettes, documentaries, interviews, production information, commentary tracks, et cetera. I can understand that all this information will not be available for every film, but eXistenZ was just released six months ago! There's more out there, I know it. If Buena Vista would just lower the price on their bare-bones discs down to $20, or even $25, MSRP (like Warner Bros.) then I'd have no problem recommending their DVDs.
One last thing to note before you take a look at this film. If you do not like slow pacing working towards a big payoff, you probably will not enjoy eXistenZ. If you are not a fan of science fiction, you most likely will hate eXistenZ. Before you enter the world of eXistenZ you must prepare yourself for a Sixth Sense-type experience and if you cannot handle that, please don't waste your time.
Fans of the science fiction genre owe eXistenZ at least a rental, if not a purchase. Buena Vista has fallen just short of a great DVD release (which would be a first) by failing to come through with extra content, yet again, while still delivering a top-notch transfer.
Film acquitted, Buena Vista continues their life sentence in hell with a release which was close, but no cigar. "Death to the demon, Buena Vista!"
Review content copyright © 1999 Sean Fitzgibbons; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Dimension Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer