The Velvet Light Trap 52 (2003) 15-32
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"Still in the Game":
Cybertransformations of the "New Flesh" in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ
Lia M. Hotchkiss
Cyberspace is more than a breakthrough in electronic media or in computer interface design. With its virtual environments and simulated worlds, cyberspace is a metaphysical laboratory, a tool for examining our very sense of reality.
—Michael Heim, "The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace"
Michael Heim's description of cyberspace as a metaphysical laboratory recalls David Cronenberg's Naturalistic remark in a 1989 interview that he "look[s] at each film as sort of a lab experiment" (Hickenlooper 4). This coincidence of description is particularly appropriate in light of the director's film eXistenZ (1999), which features a virtual reality game whose contingency and inferred, rather than explained, rules and objectives are designed to mimic the frequent uncertainties of life itself as an unfolding process. Not only is the game eXistenZ, in the words of its designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), "a game everybody's already playing," but, run through and powered by the players' nervous systems, it is a game interface and world whose particular gaming sessions or plots incorporate and hence manifest the individual players' preoccupations, in this instance, the potentially vexed relationship between games, art, or fantasy and "real life." The film, in short, concerns itself with the extent to which representation can or cannot be separated from what people in a given context consider reality as well as the potentially violent reactions people can have when they feel they have license to kill either in game fantasy or in defense of their sense of reality.
Not surprisingly, in the service of this thematic, the film eXistenZ destabilizes viewers' sense of the real in a playfully self-reflexive extension of Cronenberg's continual exploration of bodily transformation through technology that is also a return to the media concerns of Videodrome (1983), the last film before eXistenZ to issue from a completely original screenplay by Cronenberg rather than an adaptation of another work. A few critics have gestured toward the connections and variations between the two films. Both, for example, obviously explore virtual reality: Videodrome does so through pornographic cable television that carries the brain-altering Videodrome signal, hallucination, and a prototypical VR helmet that either records or induces (or both) S/M fantasies; eXistenZ does so through role playing, computer games, and interactive bioelectronic technology. 1 Chris Rodley suggests that the two films are "inverse twins": where Videodrome "captures the alarming nature of the cinema's invasion of the passive self," eXistenZ portrays "the interactive self invad[ing] cinema" (8). In the sense that it both portrays and reenacts on a metacinematic level Videodrome's depiction of life in the electronic media age as a "web of representations which infect and transform reality" (Bukatman 98), eXistenZ relies heavily on the postmodern interrogation of the sign that Videodrome develops. However, the dark vision of Videodrome, whose ambiguous ending, as Scott Bukatman argues, "enacts the death of the subject and death of representation simultaneously" (98), is recast in eXistenZ as a seriocomic transformation of the disembodied new flesh of its predecessor into the new subject as gaming cyborg gleefully, or anxiously, exploring the implications of the mutual imbrication of representation and reality. In that sense, eXistenZ picks up where Videodrome leaves off: far from having spoken his last word on representation and reality or the [End Page 15] technologization of the body and the biologization of technology, Cronenberg is still very much in the game, as attested by the film's fleshy game pods composed of neural webbing grown from fertilized amphibian eggs stuffed with synthetic DNA and complete with "umby cords" that attach user to pod via a "bioport" set in the small of the back. In fact, it is precisely in its reworking of the fantasy of transcendence of the body arguably evident in Videodrome, as well as an entire genre of cyberthriller films made in the intervening years, that eXistenZ situates itself within the guardedly optimistic...