I have several issues with this film.
Let’s start with the DVD case. What a misleading experience. First, it claims to star Willem Dafoe, when in fact his role is just a cameo. The story is 90% Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Those two are fine, it’s just disappointing that Dafoe (or any of the other characters) didn’t have a bigger role. Granted, they comment on this later… But still… Talk about false advertising.
Another issue is the cover review: ‘It makes The Matrix look like child’s play’. That’s patently untrue. The original Matrix, while not perfect, is a far superior film in terms of plot, action, cinematography, writing, production design… About the only similarities between the films are: they’re both cyberpunk meta-commentaries on reality, and they’re both weird. The difference is that Existenz stays weird, and I can’t help but feel like it’s a big joke on the audience (similar to the new Matrix).
Lastly is the review on the back: ‘A great film!’ That’s… generic. Which again makes me wonder, is this all a joke?
The movie’s been out for over 20 years, so I don’t care about spoilers. Essentially, it’s about two lovers (Jude and Jennifer) testing a new video game. And, plot twist, they were actually in a video game the whole time. Wow… Didn’t see that coming an hour before it happened.
If the meta-layer had been introduced sooner, I might have given it a pass. But it happens in the last ten minutes of the film. What’s worse is, having revealed that this was all just a game, they then provide commentary on why the rest of the film was so bad.
You thought most of the cast was underutilized? The characters complain: I had a minor role. You thought the accents were awful? The characters agree: what was with our accents? You thought it was dumb how contrived the plot was? The characters had the same issue: too many plot twists, the story was borderline absurd.
The worst part by a mile though is the production design. It’s GROSS. I understand that it’s Cronenberg, but come on. It’s a bloody, grungy, disgusting experience. Imagine if the interrogation scene from The Matrix was the entire film… And it was a hundred times worse.
This all leads me to think that David Cronenberg intended the film to be absurd and over-the-top awful, and he’s poking fun at the genre. Like in the scene when Jude Law answers his egg phone (which is as gross and weird as it sounds). It’s so dumb that there’s no way anyone could take it seriously.
Same with the dialogue, which consists entirely of on-the-nose, cringe-worthy, repetitive, ‘nobody actually talks like this’ clichés. Cronenberg passes this off as ‘video game dialogue is awkward, am I right?’ So he knows that the dialogue is bad, because the characters are in a video game.
If that was limited to the first act, and then we jumped to the real world, where dialogue is good… That would be okay. But having an entire film of clunky dialogue that’s written off as purposely bad is… Bad. Maybe it would be funnier if you’re drunk, but it’s completely unenjoyable sober.
Think of the film like a shaggy dog joke. Which is fitting, because there’s literally a shaggy dog joke at the end (and it’s genuinely funny). That scene seems to give weight to the theory that this is just an anti-film. Anti-Matrix, anti-coherence, anti-quality, anti-fun, anti-watchable. That’s the only way I can make sense of the mess, and even with that perspective, I still can’t recommend it.