14 July 2000 | dbignell
A well-crafted film deflated by the Matrix-sodden expectations of an effects-obsessed audience.
I feel compelled to speak up for this film against the spoilt ravings of the it-said-it-was-like-the-Matrix-but-I-didn't-see-any-cool-computer-graphics-a nywhere crowd that have dominated these pages.
There seem to be two schools of thought on the use of special effects in movies. The prevalent theory - depressingly common among film goers and film-makers alike - seems to be that a good effect should stand out of a film and make the audience coo like a pigeon. If you subscribe to that theory, fine, watch the Matrix and be happy. If you think that a special effect is a means to an end, a way to portray a fictional vista as a believable realism, then watch eXistenZ and marvel at how a grotesque and visceral world can be made so engrossingly real and intriguing. This film has its fair share of effects, but they are so well grafted into the ethos the film evokes that you just won't notice them on first viewing. And in contrast with the current trend towards computer-generated effects, Cronenburg knows the value of his tactile world; the physical creativity involved in the gristle-gun building scene is a fantastic example.
Okay, so virtual reality has been used many times as a concept - and by films that actually came BEFORE the Matrix too - but the totality with which this film portrays its own organic brand of VR is truly engrossing. Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh are utterly watch-able and the chemistry between them is the perfect vehicle to lead an audience through the admittedly gruesome situations the film describes.
There is an element of old-fashioned escapist fantasy in this film that manages to be strangely endearing despite the gore and I suggest that this is where the film triumphs - a triumph that can be attributed to clever writing, intelligent acting and characterisation, a compelling story, charismatic leads, a vivid and disciplined imagination and the discerning use of effects and visual style.
If the Matrix is an `oooh, aaah' sort of film, then this is more an `oooh, eeugh' movie - but don't allow the glare of the Matrix to dull your senses to the darker appeal of eXistenZ.