To defy audience expectations, David Cronenberg skimped on the special effects. But does his decision spell box office suicide?

By Josh Wolk
Updated June 02, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Ava V. Gerlitz
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David Cronenberg’s ”eXistenZ” and the Keanu Reeves hit ”The Matrix” have a plot in common: Both deal with a world where none of the characters can tell whether they’re experiencing reality or an elaborate virtual-otherworld. But aside from sharing this one-sentence synopsis, the two films couldn’t be farther apart. ”The Matrix” features millions of dollars worth of special effects, while the only trace of a special-effects budget in ”eXistenZ” is a brief cameo by a tiny two-headed CGI lizard.

This antitech take on the story of the world’s leading videogame designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who hides from unseen enemies was Cronenberg’s decision not to play the audience’s game. ”I was aware that somebody coming to see a sci-fi movie about game-playing would have a lot of expectations,” Cronenberg tells EW Online. ”And I wanted to derail those deliberately, because if you’re on those tracks, then you’re going to a place that a lot of other trains are going.”

Cronenberg, 56, designed the minimalist, low-tech look of his film ”by subtraction. First, we took away the ‘Blade Runner’-esque city of the future, because (in these movies) it always seems to be a ‘Blade Runner’ city.” So ”eXistenZ” takes place on country roads and in isolated buildings. He then pared even further, taking away all computers (the games are played through a squishy, human-organ-like substitute that plugs directly into your spinal cord), televisions, telephones, and even jewelry from his characters.

Minimizing the technology of his story is one thing, but Cronenberg’s approach seems to have minimized his film’s grosses as well. ”eXistenZ” has pulled in just $2.5 million in six weeks, while the effects-heavy ”Matrix” stands at $154 million after nine weeks. Does this $150 million-plus distinction have Cronenberg thinking that maybe a little building-leaping and bullet-dodging wouldn’t have hurt? ”All this great sci-fi stuff is only great if you want to deal with it,” he says. ”And I’ve gotten kind of cranky in my old age. If I’m not interested in it, I’m just not gonna do it.”


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