29 December 2006

Movie tip: eXistenZ

Movie: eXistenZ
Year: 1999
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Genre: Sci-Fi

Saw this for the first time recently (on DVD).

Cronenberg is brilliant at generating a surreal, menacing atmosphere to portray the more scary aspects of modernity. He also has an obsession with physiology (most famously, showing exploding heads in Scanners). Usually I find his films too dark, and too high on the nausea factor. But eXistenZ tones down his usual sadistic tendencies so that the visual and atomspheric aspects come to the fore.

The film explores the nature of virtual reality computer games, and the blurring of the boundaries between fantasy and reality. It's a familiar theme by now, and even then it had been done before (e.g. Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days). It's not plot that grabs you in a Cronenberg film though, it's 90% atmosphere. And he tends to get good performances from his actors. That's true here, particularly in the case of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Before this, I'd never seen anything of hers I really liked, she tends to be rather whiny and grating. She was a revelation here however, coming across as complex, fascinating, and highly believable as a glamorous techmeister.

Jude Law also gives a good performance. I usually find him irritating for some reason, perhaps because he often plays roles that seem too distant from his real personality. Here he played an ingenue sidekick to Leigh, and it works rather well.

I watched a little bit of the DVD extra which explores the work of Cronenberg's production designer Carol Spier. You realise how he gets all that atmosphere into his movies: great attention to detail in designing the sets, and probably also very precise lighting and camerawork. At an early point in eXistenZ, there is a fantastic shot of a gas station. It's a very eerie perspective, you are seeing it from a distance, yet you can see all the details. I'd be interested to know how they achieved that.