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eXistenZ (Vinegar Syndrome) UHD/Blu-ray Review

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    Ian Jane
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  • eXistenZ (Vinegar Syndrome) UHD/Blu-ray Review

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    Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
    Released on:
    Director: David Cronenberg
    Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Don McKeller, Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm
    Year: 1999
    Purchase From Amazon

    eXistenZ – Movie Review:

    Written and directed by David Cronenberg in 1999, eXistenZ may not hold the same level of critical acclaim as some of the director's other films - Videodrome and The Fly remake both come to mind. It is, however, a very original and well-made mix of science fiction and horror delivered with Cronenberg's distinct stamp all over it.

    The film follows one of the most influential game designers in the world, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is in the beta testing phase of her latest project, a revolutionary new virtual reality game called eXistenZ. This is no ordinary game, however, as in order for it to work, it requires the use of a 'ports' to be inserted into the player through a hole in their own body along the lower spinal cord. The only working copy of the game exists in Allegra's own Metaflesh Game Pod, a throbbing and seemingly very alive device required for the game that connects to the aforementioned port. In order to do this, she assembles a focus group to help test the project, but is shortly thereafter attacked by an assailant wielding a very unusual gun that looks like it's made out of flesh.

    With her life in danger, Allegra escapes with some help from a marketing department employee named Ted Pikul (Jude Law), who later takes on the role of her protector, but in the ensuing chaos Allegra's 'pod' gets damaged and she gets shot. When Ted removes what they figure was a bullet from her, it turns out to be a tooth. Something very strange is going on here. With the entire project at stake, Allegra convinces Ted to let her insert a port into his body so he that the two of them can play the game together. To do this they have to find a literal 'country gas station' and when they do, with some help from a guy named Gas (Willem Dafoe), they get Ted fixed up and ready. As they begin, strange things start to happen to the two of them and it soon becomes obvious that they can no longer tell what's happening in the 'real world' and what's happening inside eXistenZ. It all appears to be a scheme launched by Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm), the owner of a rival gaming company, but nothing is truly as it seems.

    Ignore the whole 'makes The Matrix look like Child's play' blurb that was all over the marketing for eXistenZ when it first came out (and continued with various home video releases) as outside of the virtual reality motif the films don't really have a whole lot of in common. This is Cronenberg, after all, and the body horror motif he's well known for is in full swing here. The film toys with sex throughout, from the insertion into the 'port' in the bottom of the spine to the handling of the pods to pretty much everything in between but this is not a new addition to Cronenberg's world, though here it's somehow completely sexual without being completely sexual in the most literal of terminology. The metaphors are obvious and the way in which sexuality melds with technology and the human body in this film is telling, prophetic even. In a world where you can buy sex toys that connect and respond to our smartphone (and create a very real physical reaction to an artificially induced sexual experience?), maybe what he's showing us in the film wasn't so farfetched at all. This is heavy stuff, bizarre and unsettling but completely captivating and plenty thought provoking.

    The film is pretty effects-intensive but on a different scale than you'd expect from what is essentially a science fiction film. Don't expect laser gun battles or guys in trench coats flying through the air in slow motion, the effects here are a part of the film as a whole, a constant, not a series of flashy set pieces. The 'organic' creations used to play the game and the different devices related to them are where most of the effects tie in - something as minimal as an insertion into the port on the spine is done with such an oddly grotesque sense of calm that it somehow almost seems normal,even when we know it isn't and probably never should be.

    The film moves at a good pace, it builds well, it's nicely edited and very well shot. Cronenberg manages to keep our interest level high throughout by subjecting us to increasingly bizarre notions of what is real and what is not. The cast are game, with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law doing the bulk of the work and very well at that, while supporting efforts from Ian Holm and a criminally underappreciated Don McKeller are welcome additions. Cronenberg has made better movies before and since but this is a top tier and underrated entry in his impressive filmography.

    eXistenZ– UHD Review:

    The HEVC encoded 2160p transfer, framed at 1.85.1 and featuring HDR10 looks excellent. Restored in 4k from its original 35mm interpositive and it looks excellent. Detail is very strong and the film’s color scheme, which is heavy on browns and Earth tones, is replicated nicely, popping when it should be never looking artificially boosted or too hot. Detail is pretty impressive in pretty much every shot while we get nice depth and texture as well. There’s virtually no noticeable print damage here but the natural film grain you’d expect to see is properly preserved. Compression artifacts, edge enhancement and noise reduction are never a problem, this always looks like film and it’s quite a strong upgrade over what we’ve seen before in terms of the movie’s home video release history.

    Audio options are offered up in English 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo, both in 24-bit DTS-HD format. The 5.1 mix is the more engaging of the two offerings and it provides some impressive moments of channel separation and plenty of strong, powerful bass when the movie calls for it. Dialogue stays clean, clear and easy to understand and there are no issues with any hiss, distortion or sibilance.

    Extras start off with a new commentary track with film historian Dr. Jennifer Moorman that is an analytical examination of the movie, going over the possible meaning of the title itself, the existentialist themes that the movie explores that have been acknowledged by Cronenberg, where the director took inspiration from Salmon Rushdie, where and how the movie deals with reality versus virtual reality and how this ties into characters having the illusion of choice, the depiction of sex using innuendo and metaphor and how the sexual energy between the two leads is sublimated into their use of the game pods, how and why the film equates sex with violence and death, the ideas of neo-sex and body modification, the self-reflexive qualities of the game within a game scenes, if the film is anti-VR or not, the free will that the characters have and exercise, if the movie makes a commentary about the military industrial complex and lots more. It's a languidly paced track and extremely highbrow, but definitely give this a listen as she does an excellent job of dissecting the movie and its themes.

    There are also three archival commentary tracks included here, the first of which is with director David Cronenberg himself. In this fairly scene-specific talk, he covers why he tries to create an ambient and hypnotic atmosphere with his films, approaching each film as its own planet or ecosystem, the importance of the tone in the opening credits, why the opening scene is set in a church, why the game pod looks the way that it does, the trickiness of shooting a lengthy dialogue sequence in a moving vehicle at night, the use of rear projection in that scene, where there's an homage to Phillip K. Dick, the relationships that exist in the film, the homosexual overtones in certain scenes and if they were deliberate or not, the depiction and use of sexuality in the movie and why the movie is obscene in a metaphorical way, his thoughts on digital effects work, the intentional and deliberate look of the movie, why all reality is virtual in a sense, how humans constantly recreate themselves, the use of humor in key scenes and lots more. There are a few spots where he goes quiet but for the most part, this a a nicely paced track with loads of interesting information in it.

    The second archival track features cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. His talk covers how he came to work with Cronenberg after they met prior to shooting Dead Ringers, how they'd go on to make (at the time) five movies together, how they get along very well together and why their collaboration is the most fruitful of his career, they mutually insinctive working relationship they share, some of the challenges that arose during the shoot, what went into getting specific shots right, why he usually tries to light sets from the floor, the use of color and light in the film, when and why they didn't need certain scenes to look realistic, the use of CGI and practical effects in the movie, the need to do test shots for the movie with the actors and the pods before production began, how some of the more effects heavy scenes were shot and more. There are some stretches of dead air here but when Suschitzky is talking he's an interesting subject to listen to.

    The final archival track is with visual effects supervisor Jim Isaac, who notes that this was his third film with Cronenberg after The Fly and Naked Lunch. He talks about how much he likes working with Cronenberg and why, concerns that he had for specific scenes, developing the look of the pod in pre-production and development, having to change things during the shoot to accommodate the locations that specific scenes were shot in, having to use real actors and not stunt performers in the movie leading to the use of small squibs in the shootout scenes, the use of CGI and puppetry to create the creature in the gas station scene, having to make the pods look as realistic as possible and ensuring they could be manipulated on set, working with some of the different cast members on the production, what materials were used to create different items in the movie, what it was like on set, the film's shooting schedule and other details related to the production. Again, some dead air here but Isaac has some interesting stories to tell.

    Crafting (un)Reality is a new twenty-two minute interview with art director Tamara Deverell on building the worlds of eXistenZ. She talks about the 'size' of Cronenberg's films, needing to make smart choices, not knowing if you're in a game or not, her background as an art student, how she got into the film industry, making connections and working her way up, how she first came to collaborate with Cronenberg on Crash, the importance of understanding his sense of humor, the eroticized elements of some of his work, how eXistenZ predicted a lot of AI and VR entertainment, locations that were used for the shoot, challenges that arose on set, how the evolution of computer graphics has changed the industry and why she feels the movie still resonates.

    Frankenstein Syndrome is a new nine minute interview with make-up effects artist Stephan Dupuis on his work on eXistenZ. He talks about developing an interest in makeup effects as a kid, trying out ideas on friends in his parents' garage, how he got his start in the business and wound up heading up an effects department on his own right out of the gate, early projects that he worked on and people that he collaborated with, meeting and connecting with Cronenberg on the set of Scanners, the specifics of creating the effects work for eXistenZ and the need to keep things looking organic, memories of creating specific set pieces, where CG was used in place of practical effects and why he retired during the pandemic.

    Sticking With Genius lets producer Robert Lantos speak for ten minutes about why he appreciates collaborating with Cronenberg, finding the director inspiring and congenial, how they met at Cannes in 1975, working together for the first time on Crash, working on eXistenZ without knowing much about VR or video games at all, his work as the CEO of Alliance, launching Serendipity, how Cronenberg and Howard Shore work so well together, why he feels the movie is ahead of its time, how the film did at the box office and why he feels the movie has gotten better with time.

    The Art Of The Title is a new seven minute interview with opening title designer Robert Pilichowski where he discusses approaching the title sequence as a film within a film, getting his start at an animation company when Cronenberg approached them to do the opening credits for eXistenZ, taking inspiration for the titles from the film itself, trying to capture Cronenberg's vision, the three different acts that the credit sequence has, how the titles were created by doing as much as possible outside of the computer and the importance of having a good title sequence.

    There is also a host of archival material included here in the form of some featurettes. Frame By Frame: The Invisible Art Of Production Designer Carol Spier is a lengthy forty-eight minute segment that explores what Spier was responsible for in the movie, the amount of work that went into the film and her relationship with Cronenberg (who also appears throughout the piece, talking quite highly of their work together and Spier's talents and abilities). There’s some very cool behind the scenes footage in here as well.

    There’s also an eleven minute archival Promotional Featurette made up of cast and crew interviews that goes over inspiration for the movie, coming up with the game design ideas, how the movie toys with the very idea of reality and more.

    The four minute archival Special Effects Featurette sees Jim Isaac talk about having to bring the concepts and ideas from the script to life, what went into the design work, the complexity of the story and what went into creating the effects work for the movie.

    A few archival interviews are also included here. The first is with Cronenberg himself and it allows him to spend four minutes discussing the different levels of reality that the movie deals with, the themes that the film explores and where some of the ideas came from for the story. Up next, leading man Jude Law discusses his work on the picture, his character and his thoughts on the film for fifteen minutes. The next interview is with actor Jennifer Jason Leigh and over a minute and a half sees her talk about her role in the movie. Up next, we get seven minutes with Willem Dafoe where he more or less follows suit, giving us a glimpse into his experiences working with Cronenberg on the film and his take on his character in the movie. The final archival interview is a twenty-eight minute talk with the special effects supervisor Jim Isaac who speaks in what looks like a sort of classroom setting about his work on the picture. Aided by some of the props he created for the film, he talks about trying to get Cronenberg's vision for the film right and discusses what went into some of the prosthetics work we see in the movie.

    Finishing up the extras on the disc is a promotional and behind-the-scenes still gallery, a theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection options.

    The limited edition flesh-textured hard slipcase + slipcover combo (designed by Haunt Love) was limited to 10,000 units and is sold out. It came with a very nice forty-page, full color perfect bound book with an essay by Justin LaLiberty titled ‘eXistenZ, Y2k And The Virtual Reality Films Of The 90’s’ and a second essay by Jon Dieringer titled ‘’eXistenZ And The Art Of Interactivity’ and is illustrated with some cool archival photographs.

    As to the packaging, if purchased from the Vinegar Syndrome website, this set comes with a spot gloss hard slipcover as well as some reversible cover sleeve art.

    eXistenZ- The Final Word:

    At the time of this writing, this is essentially the definitive release of eXistenZ. From the quality of the presentation to the wealth of genuinely interesting and illuminating extra features, it’s a truly impressive package for an enthralling and engaging film that was quite literally ahead of its time. Highly recommended!



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