Back in 2010 Christopher Nolan came out with his critically acclaimed Oscar-nominated film Inception, which explored the idea of a sophisticated technology that made it possible for a group of people to enter one person's dream. Naturally it messes with the heads of everyone involved, especially given the job was to plant an idea in a person's head. Really, when you get down to it, the whole movie was essentially a backwards heist film (a group of characters devising an elaborate plan to infiltrate a seemingly impenetrable location and get past all the security systems to put something into a safe).
There's no doubting that its ideas were used well. The whole backwards heist plot was wrapped up in a mind-boggling structure wherein the characters had to enter multiple levels of dreams. Over time it becomes a bit harder to tell dream from reality, and in the end we are left to question if what we are seeing is real or if the characters are still in the dream. There are some serious questions of reality, and it is very effective in its delivery, but the idea of exploring different levels of a virtual world and being left unsure of whether you ever left it is hardly anything new.
Imagine, for example, that Inception was made in 1999 on a lower budget. Replace the dreams with video games. Instead of a heist film, perhaps make it more of an action thriller. Put David Cronenberg in charge and you've got the basic setup for eXistenZ, a surreal film in which we experience a video game within a video game in another video game. In all of the strange experiences the characters go through, a few serious and perhaps ultimately unanswerable questions are raised. Do we truly have free will? What is reality? What is illusion? Is there a true reality or only illusion?
The whole movie begins in what seems to be reality, but early on there's plenty of clues that what we are seeing is not what it appears to be. One of the first clues is the appearance of the "gristle gun", smuggled into a demonstration of a new video game by a would-be assassin. This particular device becomes something of a strange motif throughout the movie, but as we find out later on, it was built by Jude Law's character of Ted Piker within the world of a video game. How could something from a video game make it into reality before that game was even played? The only logical answer is that what we think is "reality" is in fact part of the same video game.
There are lots of other little things. Allegra is a pretty strange name, perhaps one chosen to be gender-neutral so that the role could be played by either a man or a woman. Even more bizarre is when she and Ted Piker (Jude Law) pull aside at a gas station and encounter a station attendant literally just named "Gas" (Willem Dafoe). It could be a nickname, one which could easily have been picked for someone who was never planned to be a major character, or just a name they thought fitting for a gas station attendant.
Also notice the peculiar designs of the gamepods. As Piker notes, making a fully functioning virtual reality system out of animal parts should be impossible. The products themselves look somewhat sickly, like weird molds of flesh attached to the body by what looks like an umbilical cord. It is also curious that Piker has no understanding of how the games work throughout the film, even though he is in a world where he should be surrounded by them. All this provides a handful of small clues to the reveal at the end.
Early on, an assassination attempt is made on game designer Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who flees into the countryside with Piker. Unfortunately, it turns out hiding is not as easy as one would expect. Why? Because a lot of people don't want their perceptions of reality distorted. Their position is not to hard to see, and if we were to develop virtual reality of the calibre depicted here, it would not be inconceivable that certain parties would oppose it.
Allegra and Piker go into the game of eXistenZ to find out if there's any damage, but this is where a lot of the questions begin to come up. So far we think we know how to tell the difference between this game and what seems to be reality. It all should be simple enough, but as we've seen, there are little things that hint that this reality is not actually real, at least not in the way that we understand it.
The world of eXistenZ does somewhat resemble the way a video game today might work, the only difference being that you are fully immersed as opposed to watching a picture on a screen and pressing the appropriate buttons or keys. Many of the people they interact with in this segment behave like video game characters, repeating the same lines when prompted and simply going into a "game loop" while waiting for the players to respond to their dialogue.
The two of them are cast as unidentified characters, people who have to follow an unknown plot. Piker eventually goes on to point out that he doesn't like getting dragged along through this game with no obvious plot or goal, but really what he describes isn't much different from what we would consider to be "real" life. Here, free will seems to be almost non-existent, as both Allegra and Piker find themselves doing things out of instinct without thinking simply because the game requires them to. Piker builds the gristle gun out of habit, which also curiously resembles the same weapon used in the opening scene, yet another clue that the "reality" may not in fact be real.
The two of them finally get out of eXistenZ but things get even weirder. During a brief pause session, Piker notes that "reality" suddenly feels more like a game, and there is a reason for that. When the two of them emerge after apparently finishing eXistenZ, they realise that a disease that should have only existed in the game has somehow bled into the real world and infected Allegra's pod. This should not be possible... unless what we've thought was the "real world" was in fact another part of the game. Just like Inception, they've been playing in layers. What we have seen is literally a video game within a video game.
This notion is enforced when an explosion suddenly rocks the lodge at which Allegra and Piker have been staying, and Hugo Carlaw (Callum Keith Rennie), a seemingly fictional character from her game, enters dressed in combat fatigues. Both are confused about how this is possible. The game is destroyed, but what follows seems to play out like it could be in a video game. After evacuating the two leads from a burning building, Carlaw turns on them only to be shot by Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm). He also has the gristle gun, and his justification for having it is the same as what Carlaw had told them in Allegra's video game (My dog brought it to me).
What becomes especially curious is the way the battle plays out. There seems to be people running all over shooting at each other, and explosions everywhere, and yet our two leads are able to sit in the open unaffected. In theory, with the chaos building up as it is, they should be in danger of being hit by a stray bullet or caught in an explosion... except it's not real. All that chaos is essentially just part of the scenery, probably serving nothing more than to add to the overall atmosphere.
The game may well have been programmed so they would never hit anywhere near the players, allowing for the final confrontation in which both Piker and Vinokur are shot dead. Additionally, if this is part of the game, and there is an end goal, how much of what has happened over the course of the film was a choice made by the characters? The entire game could have been planned from the beginning to end with the players killing each other off until only one remained.
Allegra is the only one left in the end, and then she is finally left to face the truth that she isn't who she thought she was. In fact, she is exactly the opposite. She stands out in the middle of the battle scene, and suddenly finds herself wearing all this other strange equipment. The reveal is that Allegra Gellar never actually existed. The award-winning game designer was herself nothing more than a video game character, and what we thought was reality was in fact part of another game called transCendenZ.
Suddenly we are back where we started, but things are a bit different now. The game controllers are mechanical in nature, and look like something a lot more plausible than the flesh-based controllers seen throughout most of the film. Those were created purely as a stylistic choice for the game. With her in the room are several of the actors we have encountered over the course of the film, though all of them appear to be very different people from who they were in the game.
If anything, they are the opposites of their in-game characters. The underground anti-game leader that Allegra and Piker met in eXistenZ turns out to be the game's programmer and despite being as psychotic as he was in the game "Gas" seems to be an okay guy outside of transCendenZ. This is especially notable when the person we have known as the game designer Allegra turns out to herself be a radical who infiltrated a test of this new game with the intention of murdering its creator. She ends up shooting him and his assistant and almost firing on another player before he asks one simple question: are we still in the game?
This final scene seems slightly more realistic than before, but what seemed to be reality also seemed to make sense compared to the world of the game eXistenZ, and we now know that was all a simulation. This could very well be another part of the same video game, or perhaps an entirely different one. Really, when you get down to it, how can you be sure that what you are seeing is real? Countless philosophers have dedicated their lives to solving this problem. If it is not, what is real? Is anything real? Who can say for certain?
Such is the idea explored by eXistenZ. After playing a video game within a video game one can't really be certain if they are still in yet another game. Immersing yourself into a virtual reality makes it hard to tell just what is or isn't real, but in the end does it really matter? After all, who is to say that anything is in fact real at all. Just what exactly is "reality". These are all questions that can never truly be answered, and trying to do so will only result in disorientation and confusion.
In the end, what we have been led to think is reality was nothing more than part of the game. Everybody seemed to have a distinct personality and yet all of them in the end turned out to be just characters created for the purposes of the game. Memories were distorted and inserted. They didn't even know they were in a game the whole time until it was over. Ultimately, how do you know you are not just part of a video game yourself?