eXistenZ: Cronenbergian Philosophy

Currently I’m in the process of declaring an Honours concentration in my English major, which has been a lot of work, but I really enjoy it.  My minor happens to be Philosophy, which I must say is fun.  I’m also a cinephile, and a wannabe filmmaker underneath the writer ambition.  So last year I took a Film Philosophy course.  I really enjoyed it.  One of the things I enjoyed most was our look at Cronenberg, of whom I’m already a huge fan.  Not only is he a great filmmaker, he’s Canadian.  One of my brethren.  Doesn’t hurt that his films are consistently challenging.  We looked at both eXistenZ and Videodrome fairly extensively over the term, as well as others.  At the end I chose to do a final paper concerning Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and the theories of French renaissance man Jean Baudrillard, specifically the ideas in his 1981 philosophical treatise Simulacra and Simulation.  I got a decent mark.  Though I won’t tell you what it was because that’s not how I roll.  Regardless, I wanted to share it with you.  My professor and I enjoyed a few nice chats throughout the term, and I think it really helped.  For the record I’m not one of those people who thinks all films are metaphorical; yes, some are, and no, some are not.  I just think Cronenberg in particular makes films that are very easily understood in a metaphorical sense.  I don’t really think he would disagree.  A lot of his earlier “body horror” work such The BroodShivers, and certainly eXistenZ [think of the game pods, the body’s port hole, et cetera], operated on the level of metaphor.  That’s one of the few things I explore in this essay.

Here it is.  Let me know what you think in the comments.  Healthy, hearty discussion encouraged.  I’ve included this because I consider a fair majority of Cronenberg’s films as horror.  People want to sub-genre everything, so I suppose you’d call it “body horror”, as I mentioned before.  Either way I think he makes terrifying pictures.  They’re amazingly shot, written, and also relevant.  To human beings, and human nature.

David Cronenberg and Jean Baudrillard: the Simulacrum of eXistenZ

Today is an age in which film and virtual reality such as video games have transported people into a world where their makers feign reality itself to a point where the line between what is and isn’t real has virtually disappeared; there is no more real, everything within these designed worlds has become a simulation of something no longer in existence. In David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, game developers creating increasingly ‘real’ game experiences find a sort of fatwa underway against them, more specifically the world’s greatest designer- Allegra Geller, inventor of the virtual game eXistenZ, who is aided in fleeing her pursuers by a man named Ted Pikul. The group against game designers are extremist realists; people disenfranchised by so-called realism involved in these game experiences, to the point where they ironically chant “death to realism” (eXistenZ) before destroying ‘game pods’, small units made from meta-flesh through which gamers port into virtual reality. Cronenberg’s film works closely along the lines of Jean Baudrillard’s philosophy concerning the simulacrum; the idea of a “generation by models of a real without origin or reality” (Simulacra and Simulation). Through the world of gaming, Cronenberg explores Baudrillard’s philosophy specifically by using symbols, hyperreality, and biological elements present in the game pods used to access virtual reality.

The hyperreal is personified in Croneberg’s film on numerous occasions by the characters, specifically in the experiences of Allegra and Pikul. When the duo arrive at the Country Gas Station, Allegra is enchanted by the world around her; she is no longer sure exactly what is real, and what is not. Allegra touches the gas station walls to feel its texture on her fingers, to gauge its reality; she kicks up dust in the parking lot, watching it fly about her, making sure she can physically touch everything; she even touches the gas pump, smelling the hose to see if she can make out the smell of gasoline. The lines between reality and virtual reality become increasingly shaky throughout eXistenZ, even to a point where people are not who one thinks they are; when Allegra kills someone who she thought to be a friend, Pikul asks her, “but what if we’re not in the game anymore?” (eXistenZ), and neither of them can truly be sure if what she has done is real, or a simulation. When Allegra and Pikul come out of eXistenZ into the ‘real’ world again after the former’s game pod has been infected, the disease infecting it transfers back with them into reality. Cronenberg not only uses hyperreality for the audience, the characters themselves experience the hyperreal firsthand. Even at the end of the film, all the game characters are revealed to be another focus group different from the first; all the players were actually playing a game scenario within a game, eXistenZ being a scenario in the actual game being played called transCendenZ. Once all the players come back to reality, Allegra and Pikul are revealed to be in a relationship, and extremist realists themselves; the film ends as they point real guns, not the organic guns from earlier, at one of the players who asks them, “tell me the truth- are we still in the game?” (eXistenZ). With no explanation, Cronenberg ends the film in pure hyperreality, and no indication of an answer; as far as the audience is concerned, the film could exist within a never ending loop of game scenes where people are playing a game within a game inside another game, and so on, just as Baudrillard talks about how everything nowadays is simply a simulation of a simulation. By closing the film lost within hyperreality, Cronenberg implies the game of transCendenZ does not need to be rational “because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance” (Baudrillard).

One of Baudrillard’s points on simulation of reality is about signs and symbols. In eXistenZ, Cronenberg uses symbols to represent aspects of reality which do not truly exist. Throughout the game of eXistenZ in the film, Allegra and Pikul encounter game characters who are themselves symbols of real people, meant to represent an actual flesh and blood person, however, people are not actually hurt or killed within the game, so they are only symbols, and nothing more. Furthermore, the game characters are only pushed further along through the story by signs; Allegra advises Pikul when they first enter eXistenZ characters will stay stuck in one motion until they engage them in dialogue, signs of communication. Here, the dialogue is a sign, a representation of actual communication between human beings, but it can only represent; it can never truly replicate real dialogue, the reality of communicating with another person. In addition, there are other small signs and symbols present in Cronenberg’s film, “visible machinery of icons substituted for the pure and intelligible Idea of God” (Baudrillard). For instance, the realists spend their time manufacturing purely organic weapons to be able to pass through metal detectors, and gain access to their game designer targets. When Pikul is at the Chinese restaurant, there are several instances of symbols substituting for reality. First, Pikul is advised to ask for the special when he arrives at the restaurant. The special itself is a symbol, which has no actual referent; an implication of a real restaurant advertising a special is that there is something about the dish which makes it better than everything else, either in price or quality. In the Chinese restaurant within eXistenZ, the special is in fact not special whatsoever; it is a hideous dish made of unknown seafood, and therefore the special is only a symbol, a sign of something that has no actual real counterpart. Second, Pikul pieces together one of the realists’ organic weapons himself from the special dish. The guns are made out of fish skeletons, the bullets from real teeth and fillings; these are representations of a gun, they work just like a gun and can kill people, but now that these symbols of real weaponry have become actual weaponry, Cronenberg questions which is truly real. The simulation of a gun has become a perceived reality itself, and so the old true ideas of what a gun is become obsolete; the replicate has blurred the lines between what is and isn’t real. Even when Allegra tells Pikul they need to get him fitted with a bioport, the latter remarks they’ll need to go find some country gas station where it can be done; the gas station they find is literally named Country Gas Station. Cronenberg layers the virtual world of Geller’s eXistenZ game with numerous signs and symbols pointing towards the outer world, but the fact is that these symbols have become just as real as anything outside of the virtual world they inhabit because what is real does not even truly matter anymore.

Part of what feeds into the hyperreality of eXistenZ as a film is how a bioport plugs directly into the human body through the spine. In bringing things to a physical level, Cronenberg allows hyperreality on a much more confusing scale for virtual reality gamers, as it becomes tougher to differentiate between reality and the virtual world with an organic machine plugged into the body. Through this, Cronenberg also rejects Plato’s philosophy concerning mimesis; in eXistenZ, Allegra’s personal pod which contains an original version of the game is copied by her friend, Kiri Vinokur, proving there is in fact no need for an original, as the copy becomes just as much original as what it copies. Furthermore, the bioport itself is a metaphor representing sexual intercourse, and this also overtakes its original, as even though it is simulation, it becomes just as real; even Pikul tells Allegra, he has a “fear of being penetrated” (eXistenZ), so it is clear the bioport has become just as invasive and personal as sexual penetration. Even the game pods are made from organic materials, made to replicate the human body, and they get sick with disease just like a human would; there is no distinction between what is a machine, and what is flesh. The game pod should be something like what we know as a PlayStation, but Cronenberg makes it metaflesh; no longer can skin be considered skin if it makes machines to plug a gamer into a virtual world, it has become something else, a thing without any original. The pods even react if the body is physically exerted or mentally worn out; they will not work properly if the body does not. In connecting the body and pod together so closely, even to the point of physical connection by penetration, there becomes less and less a distinction between the two. Cronenberg’s point with the biological elements in eXistenZ illustrate how through simulation, there is implied an absence of something real; the game pods are simulated living organisms, but there is an absence of living with only the flesh and blood present, which is the surface representation of a human being.

The purpose of Cronenberg’s eXistenZ is to explore human beings and their relationship with virtual reality; how an increasing disassociation with reality becomes stronger in our society today with the advent of newer technologies to make virtual experiences more ‘real’. When Allegra and Pikul sit down in the Chinese restaurant for lunch, the latter expresses his worry that he is “losing touch with the texture of real life” (eXistenZ). The gamers who plug pods into their bioports are physically engaging in the virtual world while simultaneously escaping reality; Cronenberg creates a perpetual hyperreality, pervading every layer of existence within the film. Baudrillard’s sense of the “imaginary aura of the double” (Simulacra and Simulation) is present within eXistenZ, as characters are constantly fooled by identities right until the end of the film, and caught up in the sense of some original dominating a hierarchy; Cronenberg refutes Plato’s mimesis, the idea of things being imitated, and expresses how everything is a copy of another copy. Even the fact eXistenZ is a film attempting to depict how humans in the real world are becoming more and more overpowered by virtual reality is in a sense part of the world’s simulacrum, but Cronenberg by no means intends the film to be an example of cinematic realism. The essence of Cronenberg’s view comes from Jean Baudrillard’s philosophy, but through the director’s trademark style, his idea of simulation becomes more radical when physically involving the body in a process of virtual reality. The game of eXistenZ represents Baudrillard’s fourth stage in the simulacra process (Simulacra and Simulation); in one scene after Allegra and Pikul start their game, a quick shot of a virtual experience called ‘Hit by a Car’ can be seen, exemplifying Baudrillard’s idea of how products no longer need to feign reality even in the simplest sense because the lives of people within the film’s world have become so artificial, reality no longer exists as a concept. By the time eXistenZ ends, Cronenberg offers no definitive answer as to whether the characters are still inside a game or not, drawing the audience into a sense of hyperreality, as the final scene cuts to black. It is very possible one day society may go as far as Cronenberg’s vision depicts, as new technology moves closer and closer to a hyperreal virtual reality specifically in the video game industry; he represents society’s reverance of technology in the very beginning of eXistenZ, as gamers flock into a church hall where Allegra is scheduled to present her new game, mocking society and how it perceives technology as almost god-like. Perhaps human beings will someday plug themselves into a machine to play games, to connect more directly with a virtual world disguising itself as reality when it is in fact completely disconnected from it; if so, Baudrillard’s sense of a completely lost reality would become a reality in itself, and people might agree with Allegra how “nobody actually physically skis anymore” (eXistenZ).

Works Cited

[for good measure; I’d also highly recommend anyone who hasn’t already done so go read Baudrillard’s treatise because it is some intriguing business to say the least!]

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Glaser. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.

eXistenZ. Screenplay by David Cronenberg. Dir. David Cronenberg. Prod. David Cronenberg, András Hâmori, and Robert Lantos. Perf. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Don McKellar, Willem Dafoe. DVD. Alliance Atlantis, 1999.