As Penetration Fantasies Go, eXistenZ Is a Tease

David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ is, among other things, a typographical nightmare with a futuristically inspired 16-item glossary of its own. As in several of his previous horrific enterprises, most notably, They Came From Within (1975), Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983), Mr. Cronenberg goes into human orifices where no other filmmaker has gone before. In eXistenZ , a circular puncture on the skin outside the spinal column allows the player to plug into a “MetaFlesh Game Pod” described in the production notes as “the game module, resembling a living kidney, started by depressing a nipple-like protuberance, causing a rhythmic, peristaltic rippling effect.” Indeed, the sheer fleshiness of the hardware fosters a creepy image of masturbatory pornography as the players lovingly caress their Game Pods before plunging into their imaginary universes.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law play the two leads, though I would hesitate to say that they actually portray organic characters in a coherent narrative. Like several good, bad and indifferent game movies of recent years, Mr. Cronenberg’s film is populated with players who find themselves so far inside the machinery of the illusion that they never know until the very end who they really are and what they are supposed to represent.

My own fix on Mr. Cronenberg’s manipulative make-believe is that in combining and confusing the animal and electronic kingdoms, he both satirizes and savages the contemporary mania for interactive video games. A sequence in a Chinese restaurant is almost guaranteed to make one’s stomach churn with its ultimately lethal bestiality. In addition, the elaborate pseudo-technology of the Bioport, “small, MetaFlesh permanent spinal jacks positioned just above the belt line into which the UmbyCord is plugged,” suggests a massive invasion of the body promoted by unscrupulous game manufacturers solely for profit.

By making “the body’s nervous system, metabolism and energy the power source for the game,” Mr. Cronenberg has invented the ultimate reductio ad absurdum –the surrender of the player’s psyche to the game he plays. Also, the necessary penetration of one’s flesh to achieve the nirvana of personal involvement in imaginary adventures carries with it the risks of infection and even death, lending itself to metaphors for AIDS as well as all insidious addictions. I just don’t happen to like puzzle films of any kind, but I must credit Mr. Cronenberg with more intellectual depth than most of his fellow pessimistic movie pranksters.

Still, if anyone had told me that the special talents of Ms. Leigh, Mr. Law, Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Christopher Eccleston and Willem Dafoe could be twisted and trivialized for the emotionless void of eXistenZ , I wouldn’t have believed it. This is not to say that Mr. Cronenberg is entirely devoid of dark humor that can imagine an assassination plot against game manufacturers organized by a conspiracy of “realists.”

Waking Up Only Prolongs the Horror

Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes , from a screenplay by Mr. Amenábar and Mateo Gil, may be the most frightening movie I will see this side of the new millennium. It is not a question of blood and gore, monsters and maniacs, carnage and cataclysms. Open Your Eyes is comparatively restrained in leading us down the path of a beguiling romanticism to the ultimate horror inflicted on the protagonist by the tricks of his own mind.

As the title suggests, Mr. Amenábar’s brilliant suspense film deals with dreams and delusions. All you have to do is wake up, right? Wrong, very wrong. Waking up only prolongs the horror. At first, Open Your Eyes reminded me a bit of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), but after it was over all I could think of from my moviegoing past was John Frankenheimer’s terminally terrifying Seconds (1966), except that there is more free will and less gruesomeness in the Amenábar.

César (Eduardo Noriega) would seem to be the model of Hitchcockian complacency as he celebrates his 25th birthday in his sumptuous apartment amid Madrid’s young social set. He has just dumped his old girlfriend Nuria (Najwa Nimri), and is about to fall in love with Sofía (Penélope Cruz), who comes to the party with César’s best friend Antonio (Chete Lera). Mere friendship is no obstacle to desire in César’s cocky, spoiled existence. It would seem that the character is being set up to get his comeuppance, but, unexpectedly, César falls in love for the first time in his life so that what actually befalls him turns out to be more–indeed much more–than poetic justice.

After a romantic, non-carnal, all-night sojourn in Sofía’s apartment, César finds the seemingly still friendly Nuria waiting for him in her car. She persuades him to let her drive him home for old time’s sake. Once César gets into the car he soon regrets his decision when he realizes that Nuria means to kill them by driving the car off the road. In the ensuing crash, Nuria is killed, and César is horribly disfigured, making it Phantom of the Opera time for César. There is even a reference to the musical in one of the psychiatric sessions.

As the story is told on the screen, we actually begin with César imprisoned in a penal sanitarium for murdering Sofia. He describes his dreams, but in a perpetual maze of paranoid fantasies. It would be unfair for me to reveal the contrived solution to the puzzle. It would also be beside the point. What remains haunting about the film is its depiction of the torments of alienation and anomie, and of a mind adrift in an empty world.

A Male Rivalry Reminiscent of Hawks

Mike Newell’s Pushing Tin , from a screenplay by Glen Charles and Les Charles, based on a New York Times Magazine article, “Something’s Got to Give,” by Darcy Frey, deals with the insane stresses of working at New York’s Terminal Radar Approach Control center on Long Island that handles as many as 2,000 flights a day into and out of Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark airports. In describing a macho rivalry between Nick Falzone (John Cusack) and newcomer Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), the script imagines three or four near-miss collisions that should keep Pushing Tin permanently off any airline’s inflight screening schedule.

What makes the film work until its conventionally cutesy ending is its exemplary acting ensemble and sharp dialogue worthy of the best current television shows. Nick and Russell bring an old-fashioned Hawksian intensity to the theme of male rivalry in a dangerous profession. But what is particularly unusual in these sexist times is the power and depth of the respective wives of the two male antagonists. Cate Blanchett’s Connie Falzone and Angelina Jolie’s Mary Bell do more than wait in the car while their hubbies have it out with each other in the parking lot. Connie and Mary actually light the fuses that set off the explosive climaxes with characters as richly contrasted as those of Nick’s Italian-American Long Island wise guy, and Russell’s half-Indian Southwestern desert nomad with more than a trace of New Age mumbo jumbo in his laconic con act. It’s great fun watching these two grifter types chewing up all the radar terminals in sight.

All right, Pushing Tin isn’t Citizen Kane , but, for once, the acting talent available to mainstream filmmakers has not been stupidly wasted. Mr. Cusack and Mr. Thornton are less of a surprise in this regard than Ms. Jolie, who creates an original type of sexpot with the help of Mr. Newell and his literate screenwriters. As for Ms. Blanchett, I think she is one of the most gifted and versatile actresses around, and more deserving than ever of the Oscar she didn’t get for her extraordinary Elizabeth . Her Connie Falzone is, of course, too plebeian for Oscar consideration, but she gets it just marvelously right all the same.

Going Nowhere

Doug Liman’s Go , from a screenplay by John August, almost makes me yearn for the old days when people actually argued about form versus content, and mere genre thrills versus solid humanist values. Almost, but not quite. As a form-genre cultist battling what was then the content-humanist mainstream, I should feel vindicated by a movie like Go , which is virtually all form and no content, except for a sociological riff on blue-collar, thrill-seeking, drug-peddling youth teetering on the edge of extinction, but never quite falling irrevocably into the abyss despite the waving and firing of guns, and the screeching and crashing of cars. That is to say, all the characters end up where they started despite the same chain of incidents being repeated from five different points of view.

Unfortunately, each successive retelling of the story only makes the characters less substantial and sympathetic. There are the expected jabs at racism, a narc embarked on entrapment, and a mean boss at the supermarket. Perhaps I am less amused by the drug scene now that the Straw has gone down in flames. Perhaps also, I never dispensed with morality altogether even in my wildest form-genre days, and I was probably always too old to respond to the Nuremberg-rally hysteria of the rave.

Sarah Polley as a checkout clerk with attitude, and Katie Holmes as her sweetly goofy sidekick, are more interestingly choreographed than all the grimacing guys and gays acting up a storm around them. I was most put off by Desmond Askew as a depraved pixie with enough stupid expressions to supply all the original Keystone Kops.