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eXistenZ

I saw David Cronenberg's film eXistenZ again last night. There's a lot that I didn't realise about it the first time I watched it - and I don't mean about the twists in the plot, I mean about the moral question that the film implies.

Maybe it's because I saw his more recent film A History Of Violence that I spotted a kind of connection. I remember Mark Kermode on the radio talking about A History Of Violence, describing it as a deeply moral film that considers our culture's relationship with screen violence and real violence, treating it almost philosophically by exploring a story which starts off with a realistic and respectable ordinary life, then watches as the gangsterish movie violence that we all know from films like Lock Stock starts to seep into this "real" life and destroy it. It's a fair analysis of the film, but I didn't like A History Of Violence because after a while it just degenerated into exactly that kind of movie violence. And maybe that was the point, in the director's mind, but the film climaxes with a gangster shootout which it enjoys very straightforwardly, basically forgetting to leave any questions hanging in the air.

eXistenZ actually has a very similar underpinning. The plot is about an immersive and realistic virtual-reality computer game; the main characters start to play the game and, yes, you can probably guess some of what happens - things start to get confused about whether certain things are happening inside the game or in real life. The plot plays around with that a little bit - characters use game-pods to enter a virtual world, in which they find some game-pods and use them to enter a virtual world... - but it's not really a film that tries to mess with your mental model of which bit's which and when and where. Instead, it establishes the uncertainty almost as a background, and then when things start to get exciting and (as in most films) it comes to a point where people start getting killed, it uses that uncertainty to make its point: that the liminal states we enjoy in the fantasy worlds of computer games, films, novels, etc, with their different moral criteria, are not after all that separate from our own normal states of mind, and that our behaviour in those liminal zones isn't completely consequence-free. It's a sci-fi action film more than a preachy film, so it's more posing it as a question rather than offering a pat answer, but that's my interpretation of the main point.

The ending of eXistenZ (I won't spoil it) is better than the ending of A History Of Violence because, although it does still have some violence, it makes sure that that violence is still shot through with the moral/philosophical points it's been trying to attach.

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