By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated April 30, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Of all David Cronenberg’s haunting, hallucinatory forays into the philosophical and cinematic outer limits, eXistenZ is definitely the first of his thrillers to be inspired by the filmmaker’s encounter with Salman Rushdie, who was famously forced into very real hiding to escape a very real death sentence placed on him by strangers outraged by something he created. Not that Rushdie’s influence is really noticeable in this engrossing but elusive, beautiful but hideously slime-centric futuristic tease: In Cronenbergian alchemy, the fatwa — Rushdie’s death sentence — now falls on Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a superstar high-tech-game designer, who becomes the target of fanatics (”Death to the demoness!” is the boys-with-toy-swords battle cry) because she’s so dangerous and alluring a mind bender.

Allegra, see, is the creator of eXistenZ, a boundary-breaking product that employs a part-biological, part-computerized game pod — a none-too-subtle, kidney-with-nipples-shaped organism — that plugs directly into a ”bioport” in the user’s spine via a none-too-subtle umbilical/enema tube and transports him directly into an artificial reality that changes constantly. (The spangly spelling is just to increase poster value, I think, and, more slyly, to tweak real game mavens for whom such distinctions are dead serious.)

Now’s as good a time as any to quote Keanu Reeves as Neo: Whoa.

Now, in fact, is a good time to mention The Matrix, which is similarly about illusion masquerading as reality. But The Matrix is not at all similar to this much more subversive and even mocking take on the seductiveness of virtual reality. In this up-your-bioport world, computers, urban landscapes, and shiny things are nowhere in sight. (The money that might have been spent on kung fu lessons went instead into building models of two-headed amphibians.) Battles take place in a primitive-looking Chinese restaurant; eXistenZ workers harvest biological game parts at a trout farm; factory life is existentially Dickensian.

As ever, the auteur has assembled a fascinating ensemble of players for his highly evolved game. Leigh flaunts her provocative somnolence to good effect as Allegra, well met by Jude Law as a bodyguard who’s new to playing her games. Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Eccleston assume shifting identities. Go‘s Sarah Polley takes a small role, but in fellow Canadian Cronenberg she has clearly found an aesthetic soul mate for future projects. B


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