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eXistenZ Blu-ray Review

eXistenZ (1999) movie poster eXistenZ

Theatrical Release: April 23, 1999 / Running Time: 97 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: David Cronenberg

Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh (Allegra Geller/Barb Bricken), Jude Law (Ted Pikul/Larry Ashen), Ian Holm (Kiri Vinokur), Willem Dafoe (Gas), Don McKellar (Yevgeny Nourish), Callum Keith Rennie (Hugo Carlaw), Christopher Eccleston (Seminar Leader), Sarah Polley (Merle), Robert A. Silverman (D'Arcy Nader), Oscar Hsu (Chinese Waiter), Kris Lemche (Noel Dichter)

Buy eXistenZ from Amazon.com: Blu-ray DVD Triple Feature Blu-ray 6-Film Fast Action Pack Blu-ray Instant Video

Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg has managed to have a long and distinguished career without taking conventional paths. He's done a lot of horror and sci-fi work (e.g. The Fly, The Dead Zone),
but without the popularity, wide releases, and loyal fanbases that usually come with the genres. His most recent films (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, A Dangerous Method) have been somewhat more traditional but challenging adult dramas that have won some accolades, and yet his name doesn't quite command respect from the art house crowd. Though he's been writing and directing for over forty years, even those who consider themselves film people can easily have gone without seeing any of his work. He seems content to only make a new movie every few years. He is thrice represented in the Criterion Collection and does not have one film for which he is clearly best known. Cronenberg strikes me as Canada's equivalent of someone in between Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch. He's even got the distinctive gray hair to compete with them.

One of Cronenberg's relatively better-known works is 1999's eXistenZ. This is one of those movies whose unusual title catches your eye, that appears to have been recommended by a wide variety of sources, and yet remains incredibly easy to never see. It didn't win any major awards, launch any huge careers, or have any real impact on cinema at large. Still, it is a film and one that today has come to Blu-ray Disc from Miramax/Dimension partner Echo Bridge Home Entertainment.

1999 has come to be accepted as a watershed year for film, one that announced and cemented a number of talented writer-directors, many of whom offered what still stands as their finest work. At the end of the year, the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, and David O. Russell were garnering notice for the inventive offbeat efforts. Before that, genre films like The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, and Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace were dominating the public's conversation and selling lots of tickets to strong but varied reactions. Amidst this, Cronenberg's science fiction thriller was released.

With a budget of $15 million, eXistenZ was a small film. Not Blair Witch small, but small enough to be considered low-budget sci-fi. Thus, it would seem that Miramax, using their Dimension Films label, had little to lose with a limited mid-spring release in 256 theaters. Despite some critical buzz, though, eXistenZ would gross a measly $2.9 M domestically.

Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) have their regrets about ordering a Chinese restaurant's special.

eXistenZ is set in an unspecified time, presumably the near-future, in which gaming has become a way of life. A group gathers in a church to discuss and try out the exciting newest creation of esteemed game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Nicknamed "The Game Pod Goddess", Ms. Geller draws awe and applause from the enthusiastic crowd at the invitation-only event. These games are a progression on video games, only your mind supplies the video as a kind of virtual reality. Play requires plugging a controller -- a grotesque fleshy pad resembling a fetus with umbilical cord -- into a bioport, an orifice surgically produced near the bottom of one's spine.

When one zealous attendee attempts to assassinate Geller, she is taken to safety by Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a marketing trainee with no gaming experience whatsoever. To make sure her newest creation eXistenZ, not just a game but a game system, hasn't been damaged in the melee, Geller needs to play it with somebody friendly. Ted reluctantly agrees to be that friendly player, a decision that requires him to get an illegal bioport installation from a country gas station clerk named Gas (Willem Dafoe). After that procedure backfires, Ted and Allegra turn to a foreign surgeon-like engineer (Ian Holm).

The adventure is only beginning for Ted and Allegra as they enter the game, receive new identities and personality traits, and warm to the unusual rules and limitations. Like a couple of cynical film critics, the two comment on their virtual surroundings and experiences.

Willem Dafoe plays Gas, a country gas station clerk willing to install an unregistered bioport in Ted's spine. A two-headed mutated amphibian is nothing out of the ordinary in eXistenZ.

eXistenZ gives us a key to Cronenberg's imagination. It is filled with distinctive, original ideas and strange imagery. One could easily write a long report on the symbolic and psychological implications of the gooey organic universe. The film is full of creative sights: a metal detector-eluding, human teeth-shooting weapon constructed from animal bones found in a Chinese restaurant's special, a small two-headed dragon-like mutated amphibian, a tiny glow-in-the-dark pink mobile phone,
a trout farm assembly line where game pods are made from dissected creature's organs, and that recurring device of cords plugging into lower backs (with unmistakable implications of sex and reverse childbirth). It's all pulled off tremendously well for a low-budget 1990s film, the director clearly comfortable using practical props and prosthetics on elements that today would be no-brainer selections for CGI treatment.

The inventive self-referential story structure and parade of impressive production design make it both tempting and easy to overlook that the film doesn't add up to anything too special. Its layered twist ending is something of a cop-out and the entire last act fails to live up to the strong set-up. Still, such thoughtful, polished alternative science fiction generally does not exist, so it isn't hard to forgive the somewhat weak finale and the aimless unfolding protected by having its own nonconformist logic and rules.

eXistenZ's makes its individual U.S. Blu-ray debut today, seven months after appearing in Echo Bridge's Miramax Triple Feature and 6 Blu-ray Fast Action Pack collections, both times alongside fellow millennial thrillers Malevolent and B. Monkey.

eXistenZ Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), 2.0 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: December 4, 2012 / Suggested Retail Price: $14.99
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25) / Blue Keepcase
Also available as DVD ($6.99 SRP; May 10, 2011), in Triple Feature Blu-ray ($24.99 SRP; May 1, 2012) and 6-Film Fast Action Pack Blu-ray ($29.99 SRP; April 17, 2012), and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released by Buena Vista on DVD (October 19, 1999) and VHS (August 1, 2000)

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Blu-ray release of eXistenZ features unspectacular picture quality. The image is dark, pale, and littered by the occasional speck or blemish. Reviews of the film's Triple Feature Blu-ray indicate that it was presented in 1080i and not the full 1080p the packaging promised. That might be true again here and the case is again mistaken. The video looks less like a Blu-ray and more like a good DVD, which should satisfy most customers but definitely leaves room for improvement.

The disc's default 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is better, supplying a good amount of atmosphere throughout and keeping dialogue crisp and intelligible. Sadly but ordinarily, Echo Bridge does not include English or any other subtitles here, though for some reason, they do offer a secondary 2.0 DTS-HD MA soundtrack.

A young Jude Law talks games and society with a Styrofoam cup in hand. Special effects supervisor Jim Isaac holds and discusses the fleshy eXistenZ control pad with its umbilical cord.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

If eXistenZ had any bonus features on its Miramax Triple Feature Blu-ray or last year's Echo Bridge DVD releases, the cases didn't mention them. Here, though, it is joined by three 16:9 interviews from the time of release seemingly new to at least the US.
Jude Law (14:39) and Willem Dafoe (6:57) discuss their characters, the film's subject matter, and their attraction to the project. They're pretty standard promotional chats, which leave the interviewer's questions in and keep the camera moving. Meanwhile, special effects supervisor James Isaac (27:41) gives something more like a classroom show and tell with the film's props. All three are encoded in 720p HD but look like low-quality SD video.

Sadly, the one bonus feature from the film's original 1999 Buena Vista DVD -- the original theatrical trailer -- has been lost.

The scored menu plays the opening credits' gold-tinted imagery behind the cover poses of Law and Leigh. The disc does not support bookmarks, but it does resume playback of anything stopped before completion. No inserts or reverse cover artwork enliven the standard blue keepcase.

Game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and novice marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law) try to wrap their heads around eXistenZ's virtual reality.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

David Cronenberg's trippy 1999 sci-fi flick eXistenZ is original, imaginative, and compelling enough to overlook that it doesn't perfectly come together in the end. Deliberately weird and disgusting, occasionally funny, and both knowledgeable and critical of video games, this is a film worth seeing.

Echo Bridge's Blu-ray isn't anything terrific, but it is adequate, especially at its low sale price.

Buy eXistenZ from Amazon.com: Blu-ray / DVD
Triple Feature Blu-ray / 6-Film Fast Action Pack Blu-ray / Instant Video


Buy from Amazon.com

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Reviewed December 4, 2012.



Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1999 Dimension Films, Alliance Atlantis, Serendipity Point Films, Natural Nylon Entertainment,
and 2012 Echo Bridge Home Entertainment, Miramax Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.