Videodrome for Pussies: Existenz

Let me preface this chapter of the ongoing Cronenberg saga with a few choice words: Existenz is a shit film and a titanic fucking failure. It is creatively, developmentally and otherwise a massive misstep and the making of this film was, I believe, down to a loss of confidence from the usually assured Canadian after the critical and commercial mauling Crash received. It’s as if he returned to his earlier lauded work and produced a milquetoast, watered down, inept version of his earlier nightmarish Videodrome for purely misplaced commercial reasons. As such, Existenz is nuetered, boring, irrelevant and a complete waste of time for both film-maker and viewer.

I can’t get over how enormously fucking lame Existenz is. Seriously, it’s lamer than a quadriplegic. I remembered mildly disliking it and considering it to be a bit pointless, all in all, but this time out having only seen Videodrome a couple of months before enduring this tripe, I watched it with mounting anger and frustration. This is such an utter waste of time and effort, that it actively angered me. I doubt very much if that was the reaction Cronenberg was aiming at, and I do see that Existenz won some awards and whatnot, but this really is not the film for me.

Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Geller, an allegedly visionary game designer (although she seems to be completely fucking clueless) who survives an assassination attempt at a demonstration of her new “game” Existenz. Jude Law plays marketing trainee Ted Pikul, who becomes entrusted with her safety. For some reason or other, they end up having to test the game and falling down the Rabbit hole to “Existenz” where nothing or everything could be real. The film ends on a ludicrous and unconvincing cop-out, with the final twist being both hugely predictable and massively irritating.

To start with- the acting in this is mediocre to bad. Leigh manages to be incredibly annoying as Geller (her constant badgering of Ted to play her shitey game becomes tiresome very, very quickly). Law (an actor I strongly dislike)  is his usual clueless and useless screen presence. The supporting cast, including some genuine heavyweights such as Ian Holm and Willem Defoe are completely and utterly wasted. The big problem, though, is that for Existenz to be effective you need someone with the obsessed mania of say, James Woods. Neither Law or Leigh have it in them to put in the necessary performance. Leigh, back in her Single White Female days, probably could, but Geller is meant to be the guide to Existenz and is therefore not allowed to. Law, on the other hand, is the real problem with the acting- he’s the Woods character that gets sucked into an alternative world and becomes gradually more and more obsessed etc. The required performance is completely beyond Law, and as a result Pikul is merely a petulant and annoying little bitch.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Existenz is a confused and irritating mess. For a start, the game itself is possibly the worst fucking game ever conceived. Cronenberg clearly didn’t understand the point of games, or VR, and as such he dreamed up a game where the flaming characters plug themselves in and then get to do such exciting things as work gutting frogs on an assembly line. There is no sense of wonder to Existenz, no sense of joy and as such it is completely inconceivable that anyone would willingly play it, let alone become obsessed with it. I admit that this is partially down to the twist ending, but the sole sense of wonder in the film is provided by a two-headed lizard. Videodrome was a sultry and intoxicating experience, that challenged and twisted Woods’ already susceptible sleazy bastard. Pikul, however, is actively anti-gaming. He’s not pushing his personal boundaries, or forcing himself to confront demons, he’s just uninterested. Therefore, it is utterly inconceivable that he would be remotely interested in something as totally dull as Existenz. He just wouldn’t, and Law’s cretinous and uninquisitive version of Pikul, especially,  would not even give it the time of day.

Furthermore, the twist ending is hugely predictable, it is signposted by the two-headed monster, and the teeth gun and other touches, but the big give away is that Geller, allegedly the sole creator and Existenz-maestro, hasn’t a fucking clue what’s going on when they’re “playing” (I can’t think of a word for what they’re actually doing) Existenz. Again, as a result of this, Cronenberg didn’t know where the hell he was going so abruptly stops the action, just when it’s getting interesting, and has Geller proclaim herself to be “The Winner”, before revealing the film’s big twist. It’s just terrible. Furthermore, there are touches of Geller complaining about some of the characters that she, apparently, created that suggest that she does know every line of code in it. So which is it?

There are some nice Cronenberg images such as the bioport and the games pod, and the odd vomit inducing image (Law’s back absorbing the interface or eating the dinner in the Chinese Restaurant), but even these touches are bland and pointless compared to the epic Stomach Vagina in Videodrome. The insertion of the back plug visually suggests sodomy, but this potentially interesting idea is hastily backed away from. As for the pods themselves, they glisten and shiver in a revolting sexual manner (particularly when being suggestively stroked by Leigh), however, this interesting idea is also not particularly investigated.

Overall, I do not recommend Existenz at all. I do recommend Videodrome, but this is just such a colossal failure of a movie that I struggle to think of redeeming features. It’s ill-conceived, redundant and almost entirely pointless. The only possible purpose of Existenz, in my opinion, is to serve as a warning to any hack out there stupid enough to attempt to remake Videodrome- don’t do it. If Cronenberg himself couldn’t do it, then you bastards don’t stand a chance. Overall I give it an extremely generous 1 Chang.

Next up is another stinker: the coma-inducing Spider. Thankfully, though, it’s the last one of the second shit period.

It’s been real, as opposed to Existenz-tial,



The order so far 

  1. Dead Ringers (4 Changs)
  2. The Fly (4 Changs)
  3. Videodrome (4 Changs)
  4. Scanners (3.5 Changs)
  5. The Brood (3 Changs)
  6. The Dead Zone (3 Changs)
  7. Shivers (2 Changs)
  8. Crash (2 Changs)
  9. M. Butterfly (1.5 Changs)
  10. Naked Lunch (1.5 Changs)
  11. Rabid (1 Changs)
  12. Existenz (1 Chang)
  13. Fast Company (Orangutan of Doom)

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

65 responses to “Videodrome for Pussies: Existenz”

  1. Droid says :

    I’m pretty meh about this film. I’ve only seen it once, when it first came out, and I’m not a Cronenburg connoisseur so I didn’t really have anything to compare it to. I’d have to see his other films and then watch it again to really have a strong opinion either way.

    Cronenberg clearly didn’t understand the point of games, or VR, and as such he dreamed up a game where the flaming characters plug themselves in and then get to do such exciting things as work gutting frogs on an assembly line.

    I disagree with this. People do this shit now, with games like The Sims and that online game Second Life or whatever its called. People spend their lives being a variation on themselves in a virtual environment. I believe that if a technology like this was invented, a game where you lived the life of someone else, working a job gutting frogs for example, would be successful, and addictive.

    • Jarv says :

      I do agree with that, but that isn’t the game that Existenz is. The Sims and Second Life and whatnot allow a significant amount of freedom of action, wheres Existenz doesn’t. It’s literally “go from point A, where you have to say exact words to character to get him to stop rolling his head in a circle to point B where you gut frogs for no real purpose to point C where you eat at a Chinese restaurant”.

      If there was the freedom of a proper sandbox game, where you had an alternative between gutting frogs and whatnot, then yes, people probably would go for it. That isn’t what Cronenberg presents.

      • Droid says :

        Okay, I don’t remember the specifics of the game in Existenz and the way you presented it I thought it was some free roaming virtual world.

      • Jarv says :

        That’s what Cronenberg clearly thinks he was doing, but it isn’t what Existenz did. There’s all the unreality rebels and whatnot, but Existenz is so clearly linear (Geller even says so) that it doesn’t work as that concept. There is no way in fuck that Existenz could replace reality- it’s linear, predefined (even down to character urges that apparently you have to follow) and totally boring. Grand Theft Auto is probably more of an example of what Cronenberg was thinking of- you can follow the story if you want, but you can also just truck around committing crimes. In Existenz the second option is not open to you.

  2. Franklin Thomas Marmoset says :

    I agree with this. Gave the film another try a couple of months ago and still didn’t like it. Like you say, it’s like Cronenberg doesn’t really understand games well enough to do the concept justice.

    Also, I was going to say exactly what Droid said – there are plenty of people pissing away their time completing mundane tasks in The Sims and Second Life and Farmville, so I think those types would probably be happy to play a game where they gut frogs for a living. Fuck knows why, but they would.

    • Jarv says :

      That’s my fault. I should have made the distinction clearer in the review. I do know that people do waste their lives doing shit like that, but there is some measure of “freedom” in that. Existenz is a linear game.

      • Franklin Thomas Marmoset says :

        Maybe there’s an Existenz deleted scene where the frog gutters get to steal a car, fuck a hooker, then beat her to death with a baseball bat?

      • Jarv says :


        Or they massacre the other frog gutters, and then go on a one man rampage with a minigun.

      • Franklin Thomas Marmoset says :

        Grand Theft Existenz!

        I would totally play that game, especially if it meant I could shoot Jude Law.

      • Jarv says :

        There would be something hugely pleasurable about clubbing Jude Law to death with a golf club.

      • Droid says :

        I’d particularly like to run him down with my car, then reverse back over him as he tried to run away.

        I always seem to like doing that when I got a bit bored of the mission stuff. Just going Carmageddon on people.

      • Jarv says :

        There are so many inventive ways in GTA to hurt somebody. Law would be in real trouble.

        He must be the WORST major actor in Hollywood. The only role I would cast him in, would be Judge Cal in the version of Judge Dredd that I’ve got in my head that will never be made.

      • Droid says :

        I like Law in Gattaca and I didn’t mind him as Watson.

      • Jarv says :

        Gattaca was a career high. Haven’t seen Holmes.

        Still, though that’s two out of a long list of bullshit.

  3. Bartleby says :

    Good review Jarv. I think it’s one of the few reviews I’ve read of a movie that I was ‘meh’a bout , that actually changed my mind to see why it’s a failure. I realize I enjoyed bits of the film for their oddness, not for how the whole thing works as a story. You are right; Cronenberg wants to suggest a world where we just go around and do our own thing, but there’s a lot of talk about ‘how your character is written’ and when Law is using his tongue to give Leigh’s bioport a rimjob, I think he remarks how it’s ‘in character.’ This isn’t anything like a game anyone would actually want to play, but then I think Cronenberg was trying to foreshadow the mundanity of the future of gaming.
    The problem then, is that the best bits—chinese restaurant in the woods attached to an amphibian processing plant—have no place in the game universe.
    And then ending, that was egregious.
    So, what did you guys think of 13th Floor? I feel like I need to rewatch it. That’st he one that recreates the 1930’s cityscape right?

    • Jarv says :

      It’s fundamentally flawed, and what is irritating is that it has nothing to offer on a subject that Cronenberg should rip apart. It also feels like he was “scared” after the far more ambitious Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, and Crash all failed for different reasons. For the record, this is the film Mrs. Jarv disliked the second most from the “Shit period”. She preferred the aforementioned 3 to Existenz, and disliked Spider more. What is interesting, though, is that unlike me she is seeing these for the first time.

      13th Floor is OK, with a terrible ending. It gets itself in tangles with the “layers” but the Virtual Reality itself is really well handled. I quite enjoyed the psuedo-noirish cityscape, but it did lose me at the end.

    • Droid says :

      I liked The 13th Floor, but I haven’t seen it since the cinema. I barely remember it.

    • Jarv says :

      Also, several of the set pieces feel both incongruous and gratuitous- in particular the gropey sex scene between Law and Leigh. They both state that they feel “compelled” to do it because of their character, but it just doesn’t work. Even in GTA (where sex is absolutely on the cards) it doesn’t just “happen” it’s a choice that the player has to make.

      Existenz would be the worst game imaginable, because it just shovels you along with no thought to entertainment or free will.

      The Chinese restaurant scene is reasonably entertaining, but gets fucked up by Law’s non-performance. I’m wondering if I wasn’t being a bit generous, now I think about it with 1 Chang.

  4. Bartleby says :

    Yes, the ending was horribly weak if Im recalling it. It essentially becomes ‘slasher of the week’ movie. But for the first forty minutes or so, I was honestly enjoying it more than The Matrix. That didn’t end up being the case though. Obviously.

    You know what is a probably my fave of the virtual relaity game world movies? Oshii’s Avalon. Anyone here see that?

    I stillh avent seen the sequel Assault Girls. Should get around to that.

    • Jarv says :

      I’ve not seen it. I should though.

      I remember liking (which is highly unusual for an Anime) Ghost in the Shell- which deals with this sort of thing as well.

    • Bartleby says :

      I should poit out, the above staement is regarding thirteenth floor not existenz.

    • Droid says :

      A movie that hasn’t aged well at all is Virtuosity. I enjoyed it when it came out (i think I was about 16 or 17) but I saw it about a year or so ago and it was STAGGERINGLY awful.

    • MichaelAndTerrance says :

      Yeah, I remember it came out around the same time as Matrix and some critics were comparing it, favorably, and I agree. I liked it better than Matrix and it’s actually my second-favorite Cronenberg, after “The Fly.”

  5. Joachim Boaz says :

    I knew I was staying away from this for a reason — “Videodrome for Pussies” — HAHAHAHA

    I fucking loved Videodrome!

  6. Joachim Boaz says :

    Regardless, it made me laugh 🙂

  7. Continentalop says :

    Jarv, you missed the entire point of this film. Existenz is about how man is always searching for another plane, be it drugs, spirituality or even games, and this film…ah fuck it! I can’t even pretend this film was good or even coherent. The movie sucks shit.

  8. Continentalop says :

    But Jude Law is awesome as Watson in Holmes. I honestly thought he should have gotten nominated.

  9. Jarv says :


    I would actually place this as probably the third worst Cronenberg- only marginally better than Spider, and significantly worse than almost all of the others.

    I also personally don’t like The Matrix either, but it is streets ahead of this. Even if it owes a huge amount to Gibson.

    Cheers for the comment.

  10. ThereWolf says :

    All the time I was reading the review I thought I had something important to say about Existenz, but now I find I haven’t.

    I mean, I think it’s an interesting oddity, eventually works up a head of steam – then the ending is shite. The ending made me dismiss the film from mind. Which is a pity coz there is a ‘feel’ of classic Cronenberg in there; he’s trying to reach Videodrome territory but the material isn’t upto the job. So, you’re left with an odd, forgettable diversion instead.

    Good one, Jarv. Don’t think it’s worth so much hatred though, just isn’t memorable enough for that… Or is it just anger at what might have been?

  11. DocPazuzu says :

    Yes, it’s crap. Thing is, ANY movie dealing with computer games, V.R. or the Internet is doomed from the very start for three reasons:

    1) Technology makes the movies obsolete — if not purely technologically, then certainly thematically almost as soon as they’re released.

    2) The very lure of computer games and V.R. is the immersion of the player. Making movies ABOUT players’ immersion is therefore insta-FAIL.

    3) Filmmakers don’t seem to know shit about either computer games, V.R or the Internet which means that anyone in the western hemisphere under the age of 60 (including the target audience) will call bullshit on the film within the first ten minutes.

    In short, Hollywood: make movies about other stuff.

    • Jarv says :

      I would add one more to that- Filmmakers also seem to hold computer games in some sort of mild contempt: Anderwank’s retooling of Resident Evil leaping to mind.

      These games are successful for a reason, and to assume that you know better is the height of arrogance and equals instant fail.

      • DocPazuzu says :

        Doom is one of the worst offenders. How did they fuck that up?

        It’s simple: Mowing down hordes of demons from hell with withering firepower. On Mars.

        They couldn’t even get that right. Again, how do you go about fucking that up? It should be impossible.

      • Jarv says :

        I do like the FPS cam though. That was well done.

        The rest of it was abject toss.

    • Droid says :

      It’s been a long long time since I’ve seen it, but The Lawnmower Man was quite effecive.

      • koutchboom says :

        Yeah I didn’t realize that the Lawnmower man is that bloke from Lost/Machete.

        But I prefer Lawnmower man 2, just cause.

      • Droid says :

        Haven’t seen either of those, but its Jeff Fahey isn’t it? Thats actually disgusting that I know that actors name since I’m usually so terrible at remembering names of people like my mates girlfriends and shit like that.

      • koutchboom says :

        Yeah thats the bloke. Lawnmower Man 2 is actually pretty bad. But I think it’s one of those crazy enough to be entertaining? I really don’t remember, I wouldn’t mind going back and watching either one again though. It just odd because I’ll always think of Fahey as Lawnmower man, even though he looks totally different. He looks like Rik Mayall (Drop Dead Fred) in Lawnmower man.

  12. DocPazuzu says :

    Oh and can I just say how much I hate Jennifer Jason Leigh? Bitch can’t act for shit. Never could. My idea of hell would be being forced to watch “Georgia” or “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” on loop for eternity.

  13. weexs says :

    boom chica wowow

  14. Heather says :

    It certainly has allusions to some of his other work, and I admit the ending leaves much to be desired, and the first time I saw it I only mildly enjoyed it for superficial reasons, but my recent re-watch I actually felt like some of the campy thematic issues were intentional (and frankly made more sense), and the strange acting somehow just made sense. It’s certainly not without flaws, but I can’t agree it’s as bad as you claim, though I guess on some levels I see where you are coming from.

    • Jarv says :

      Thanks for the comment Heather,

      I actually detested it on second watch- it’s just such a huge failure for me.

      Strange acting? Jude Law? Nooooo that can’t be possible.

      • Heather says :

        I was just discussing some peoples absolute distaste for him as an actor. He’s one of the few actors that I find charming no matter what he does. Perhaps my irrational affection for him does play a part in my enthusiasm for some of his work, but then I consider that I’ve put him on blast numerous times for some of his shitty flicks over the years. So who knows!

        Did you like him as Watson I wonder? I wasn’t a big fan of the film, but his casting felt right.

      • Jarv says :

        I haven’t seen that, I just missed it.

        I am prepared to be neutral about him, but goddamit, Alfie exists and annoys me intensely.

  15. R J Dent says :

    I’m sorry to say, but you seem to have missed some of the
    crucial points of the movie. Gellar and Pikul are not playing
    eXistenZ, they’re in a game called tranSendenZ. You say Gellar’s
    supposed to be a games designer – no she’s not – she’s just a
    member of the public trying out a new game – and is just as new to
    – and as ‘clueless’ about transEndenZ as anyone else She would like
    to be a games designer, as she states at the end of the movie, but
    she isn’t one. Yevgeny Nourish is the actual game designer – and he
    does know what’s going on. You claim the acting is bad, but from
    the opening shot of the movie we’re watching two dimensional game
    characters – ones who are – unknown to us – already involved in the
    transendenz game. The actors have to act as poorly-defined game
    characters – hence the bad accents and wooden responses. You also
    state eXistenZ is possibly the worst game ever – but how do you
    know? We never see or experience the eXistenZ game – it doesn’t
    exist. It’s just an unrealized pipe-dream of Gellar’s. She’s
    playing a role of a games designer in the transendenz game. That’s
    why she’s clueless. You say Pikul’s anti-game, but he’s not – he’s
    one of the first volunteers to play transendenz – however, in the
    game his character’s an anti-game nerd. I don’t really see why you
    haven’t mentioned these crucial points. In a way, it’s as though
    you’ve reviewed only half of eXistenZ and left out all of the
    important bits. I agree that it’s not in the same league as
    Videodrome, but then, what is? This is not personal; I just wanted
    to clarify a few points you left out of you review of a very
    entertaining, complex and interesting movie.

    • tombando says :

      Didn’t know a member of the ’85 Bears was a Cronenberg fan.

    • Jarv says :


      I, funnily enough, don’t actually disagree with anything in that. However, I do actually think you miss the point. I was trying to review the film as if I hadn’t seen it before. Everything you say relies heavily on knowing that they’re playing Transcendenz. Which is true.

      However, when coming to this review, I was lucky enough to see it with my wife, and I was waiting for the reveal at the end. She, on the other hand, was actively aggravated by Geller’s stupidity and Pikul’s reluctance.

      I think this film relies far too much on that reveal, and it’s a film that I strongly dislike anyway. The reveal is little more than a cheap parlour trick that I wouldn’t tolerate from the likes of Shamalayaman, so I won’t tolerate it from Cronenberg.

      This film fails for myriad reasons, which I think I was quite clear on, and the cheap trick pulled by the finale is just one of them. Early Cronenberg, or even the Cronenberg in his stride, wouldn’t have pulled such a cheap and tacky twist- it doesn’t make you redefine the movie, it’s just aggravating.

  16. R J Dent says :

    I think the reveal is a typical Cronenberg trope/device: Spider’s mother; Harlan as Videodrome operative; Revok as Vale’s brother; Stall as Joey; Nola’s children; Candice’s new welts; Song’s gender; Rose’s execution – and so on. There are no reveal-less Cronenberg films/movies.

    • Jarv says :

      Cheers for the reply, but I strongly disagree with that for three reasons.

      Firstly, you aren’t comparing like with like here- for example, Song’s gender is revealed to Rene, but the audience is aware for a long time.

      Secondly, the reveal in Existenz is entirely different to those other ones, Nola, for example, is a reveal but it’s a different type of reveal- it is effectively “all a dream” and is done to explain the myriad failings of the writing- particularly with regard to Allegra.

      Thirdly, and this is the killer for me on this, for every example you’ve given, I’ve got one without a reveal: Shivers, Crash, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Fast Company all are straightforward films with no reveal or twist.

      • Jarv says :

        I don’t think you can categorise Cronenberg like this. He doesn’t fit as a M. Night Lameness twist director- he’s far more interesting than that.

        I did his whole filmography- so have a look at the other ones. Cronenberg is one of my favourite directors.

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