Color, 1999, 97 mins. 9 secs.
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie, Christopher Eccleston, Sarah Polly, Robert Silverman
Vinegar Syndrome (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0/RA 4K/HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), 101 Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Turbine (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL), Echo Bridge (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Alliance (DVD) (Canada R1 NTSC), Buena Vista (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

A eXistenZ20th-century swan song of sorts eXistenZto the unsettling body horror that made him famous, David Cronenberg's eXistenZ tackles the potentially dated subjects of gaming and virtual reality in his usual off-kilter, probing style. Featuring one of his strongest casts and his usual behind-the-scenes conspirators at the top of their form, the film makes for both a relatively safe introduction for newcomers and a surreal diversion for fans of Videodrome, next to which this feels like a more playful variant. It also belongs to that sudden wave of films at the very end of the millennium that focused on the overturning of reality through genre cinema, most notably among such company as The Matrix, Dark City, Open Your Eyes, and The Thirteenth Floor, all of which paved the way for the mainstreaming of ideas like multiverses in mainstream entertainment now.

During a sneak testing session for her newest game, eXistenZ, "game pod goddess" Allegra Geller (Leigh) falls victim to an assassination attempt that goes awry. Protected by her company's jittery public relations agent, Ted Pikul (Law), she flees to the countryside where the two enter her game to uncover the dark secrets behind the assassination plot. As the film shifts in and out of reality and the virtual scenario, the two become increasingly confused about their own surroundings and identities.

Anchored by the two solid lead performances (with Law slapping on an amusing Canadian accent), Cronenberg's quirky chamber piece deliberately toys with viewers' expectations right from the beginning. The expected hi-tech hardware is replaced by fleshy game pods and umbilical connections into players' spines, while blatantly phony and arch performances are exposed to be precisely that. The twisty narrative constantly threatens to veer into incoherence but always eXistenZstops short to reveal one more jolting surprise, and the director's eXistenZoften overlooked sense of humor is well in evidence here. Leigh provides one of her most fetching performances, while Law skillfully adapts to the transformation needs of his role to prove why he was so in demand at the time. The excellent Sarah Polley and Christopher Eccleston are potent but have minimal screen time in small bookend parts, but Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, and the rest of the crew have juicier parts to tackle. As usual, Howard Shore's moody, experimental score nails each scene perfectly, while Peter Suschitzky manages to equal the evocative cinematic imagery he conjured up in Crash.

First released in a basic U.S. DVD edition from Buena Vista with only the Dimension Films trailer as a bonus, eXistenZ was given a much more elaborate treatment in its Canadian and U.K. variations in 2001 from Alliance and Momentum, respectively. The anamorphically enhanced transfers of all the discs look very similar, with the non-U.S. versions boasting a slightly less digitally filtered look. The special editions feature no less than three running commentaries; Cronenberg provides the first and most entertaining, which points out a number of small touches which would escape the casual viewer. Suschitzky and special effects supervisor Jim Isaac discuss their own involvement on separate tracks and essentially provide every scrap of technical information imaginable about the film, augmented with a few nifty references to Cronenberg's past work. "The Invisible Art of Carol Spier," a 53m48s documentary dedicated to the film's production designer (and a Cronenberg regular), features behind-the-scenes footage and interviews covering her diverse career, with a special emphasis on eXistenZ. The Canadian trailer strongly resembles the one designed by Miramax, with a techno-music finale, but the alternate French-language eXistenZCanadian trailer also included on the Alliance disc features completely different editing and music cues lifted eXistenZfrom Scream.

By the time the Blu-ray format rolled around, fans of the film were frustrated by woefully substandard editions that first poured out with the worst offender coming via Echo Bridge's interlaced 2012 edition (which went out of print quickly and started commanding stupid amounts of money online). A 2017 Blu-ray/DVD combo mediabook from German label Turbine turned out to be a nice surprise for those expecting a rehash of the older presentation; it's a significant improvement with a visible uptick in detail, far superior compression, and less digital filtering and sharpening. All three of the Canadian commentaries have been carried over along with the doc, plus a raw video interview about the special effects with Isaac showing off some of the rubbery creations (3m47s), an extended making-of EPK featurette (10m37s), the English and German trailers, and a batch of EPK interview segments with Leigh (1m17s), Law (14m39s), Dafoe (6m47s), Isaac (27m41s), and Cronenberg (4m). Audio options include English DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 and German DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 (with optional German and English subtitles), plus Turkish Dolby Digital 5.1. (And you really haven't lived until you've watched eXistenZ in Turkish with English subtitles.) The packaging also features a thick booklet, “In the Spell of the Virtual World” by Christoph N. Kellerbach.

In 2018, 101 Films selected eXistenZ as one of the launch titles in its dual-format Black Label series, with the first 3,000 units featuring a slipcase and exclusive booklet (in this case two essays, "Enemy of Reality: David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ" by Alex Morris and "Of Fabrics and Flesh: An interview with Denise Cronenberg" by Phillip Escott). The transfer appearsto be almost identical to the German one, if just a sliver brighter in spots; likewise, both LPCM 5.1 and 2.0 English options are included with optional English subtitles. Both sound great as usual, though the 2.0 feels more authentic to the way it sounded in theaters at the time. The original Cronenberg commentary is carried over here, while two new commentaries have been added; they can't be evaluated here since one of them features this reviewer and Edwin Samuelson, while the other has Kim Newman and Ryan Lambie. On the video side you get everything from the prior releases together, namely the Spier, special effects, and general EPK featurettes, as well as the separate interviews with Leigh, Law, Dafoe, Isaac, and Cronenberg. A welcome new interview with Eccleston, "The Leader" (16m2s), covers his admiration for Cronenberg (The Dead Zone, The Fly, and Dead Ringers in particular), his period in North American films ("the food eXistenZwas better"), the process for his "terrible American accent," and Cronenberg's fondness for chewing gum, among other eXistenZtopics.

In 2024, Vinegar Syndrome gave Cronenberg's film its first worthy U.S. release as a dual-format 4K UHD and Blu-ray set (both standard retail and a limited edition that sold out almost immediately, featuring a 40-page book with essays by Justin LaLiberty and Jon Dieringer). Featuring a new 4K scan from the 35mm interpositive, it's a very obvious upgrade over past releases with more image info visible, more accurate 1.85:1 framing, and a more robust and evocative color scheme that outclasses how this looked in theaters. The UHD's HDR is particularly impressive, bringing out a wide array of colors in the darker scenes that were flattened out completely before (especially the hotel room scenes). The DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 English tracks both sound excellent with Howard Shore's typically eerie score getting most of the benefit of the multi-channel separation, and optional English SDH subtitles are provided. The Cronenberg, Suschitzky, and Isaac commentary tracks are all ported over here, while a thoughtful new one with film historian Jennifer Moorman takes an analytical approach to the film including aspects of philosophy, the real-life fatwa that inspired the story, the handling of multiple planes of reality, the interplay of violence and intimacy, and the role of gender within the gaming community. In the new "Crafting (un)Reality" (22m14s), art director Tamara Deverell chats about the choices made to bring the film's vision to life with its blurring of the lines between the game worlds and explains how her own extensive art background played a role in her career choice."Frankenstein Syndrome” (9m24s) is a new piece with make-up effects artist Stephan Dupuis exploring how his early love of monster movies informed his work and what he brought to conjuring up some of the grotesque imagery in the film, including that memorable Chinese restaurant shooting. In "Sticking with Genius" (10m25s), producer Robert Lantos goes into his affinity for staying loyal to genuine creative innovators like Cronenberg and the working relationship they enjoyed while he was in the process of selling his company Alliance to form the new Serendipity. Finally the new "The Art of the Title" (7m) has opening title designer Robert Pilichowski exploring the influence of classic designers like Saul Bass and explaining the concept behind his work on this film, as well as the renaissance in striking title sequences that arose throughout the '90s. Returning here from earlier editions are "Frame by Frame: The Invisible Art of Production Designer Carol Spier," the special effects and promotional featurettes, the trailer, and the EPK interviews with Cronenberg, Law, Leigh, Dafoe, and Isaac. A promotional and behind-the-scenes gallery (3m24s) is also included.


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101 FILMS (Blu-ray)
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TURBINE (Blu-ray)
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Reviewed on February 2, 2024.

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